Tuesday, 19 October 2010

Defamation and Libel

  After a year of HCJ learning all about exciting philosophers and their work I was more than underwhelmed to say goodbye to the likes of Emile Zola, Fredrich Nietzche and Freud and welcome Law for Journalists back into my life. It would be fair to say that law is definitely a weak point of mine BUT after two lectures I found it all coming back. Here are some notes so far.

Defamation and Libel 

To break it down in simple terms, defamation is taking away a reputation to which a person is entitled. There are two types of defamation. These are; slander (defamation in the temporary form) and libel (defamation in the permanent form)

Reputation is precious to those who have a public life, money or both. To say something about someone in the public eye that you know to be untrue would be said with malice. If it threatens that persons reputation then you have defamed them and therefore committed a libel.

However, most mere abuse has a certain degree of legal safety. "You smell" for example. Most defamatory is about a persons qualifications. A doctors professional reputation is absolutely vital for them to carry on in their profession. You wouldn't seek out a doctor to help your ailments if they've been accused of raping, poisoning or misdiagnosing patients... would you?

One famous case where this happened was, Rahamin vs. Channel 4/ITN
In July 1998 channel 4 broadcast a major news report on the 7o’clock news that made allegations against locum consultant Joseph Rahamin that he claimed were not only untrue but also defamatory as they damaged his personal AND professional reputations. The accusations made were that:

  • Mr. Rahamim was probably responsible for the death or serious injury of many of his patients including two who had died during their operations
  • Mr Rahamim was not competent to practice as a consultant thoracic surgeon and was seriously under qualified and inadequately trained.
  • That he had fraudulently obtained his post as a Consultant by misrepresenting his qualifications and employment history.
  • That he had dishonestly sent out letters to local GP’s in which he had falsely described himself as an FRCS
  • That he had dishonestly concealed from his employers the fact that as a result of injuries sustained in a road accident he was unable to operate safely and
  • That by reason of these matters the GMC ought to have Mr. Rahamim struck off.
Publication + defamation + identification = Libel

The only libel defences are as follows;

Justification - If it is true and you can prove it in court
Fair comment - An honest held opinion which is based upon facts or privileged material within the public interest.
Absolute Privilege - Court reporting
Qualified Privilege - Anything said by the police or pressers
Bane + Antidote - when the defamation is removed or cancelled out by the rest of the context

Cartoons are totally exempt from libel, this is why you can often find cartoons in the first few pages of The Sun newspaper that poke fun at celebrities or politicians who have been in the public eye during the week.

If a libel is present without any of these defences then steps should be taken to apologise in a later edition of the publication.


Here is a recent example of arguably the biggest tabloid newspaper in Britain apologising for defaming imprisoned footballer, Marlon King.

Reynolds defence

Named after a defence raised in the late 1990s by Times Newspapers after the Sunday Times published an article about the former Irish prime minister, Albert Reynolds. Mr Reynolds sued, arguing the allegations in the article were not true and were defamatory. The newspaper argued that the allegations it published were serious and that it had a duty to publish them. They were, it argued, made in the public interest and after they'd exercised all reasonable care in checking. Even if the allegations were not true, they argued they should have been able to report them and be legally protected by 'qualified privilege'. - Kevin Marsh BBC News

Material must be in the public interest... a product of responsible journalism.

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