The following is taken from a BBC Action Network webpage
1. What are defamation and libel?
Libel law protects individuals or organisations from unwarranted, mistaken or untruthful attacks on their reputation. A person is libelled if a publication:
For example, MORAL rights campaigner Victoria Gillick recently won a £5,000 settlement and an apology after taking libel action against the Brook Advisory Centre, a charity which gives sex advice to young people, over allegations that Brook had suggested Mrs Gillick "bore a moral responsibility" for an increase in pregnancies among teenagers. A fact sheet published by Brook contained the heading "What caused the teenage conception rate to rise in the 1980s?", and listed a legal action brought by Mrs Gillick against the Department of Health over contraception guidelines as one of the causes.
your facts right
Almost uniquely in English law, in libel cases
the burden of proof lies with the author / publisher and not the
complainant. In other words, you have to prove that what you write
is true. The person you’ve targeted does not have to prove that
In 1990 McDonalds served a libel writ on several
members of a campaigning organisation over the production and
distribution of the ‘What’s Wrong with McDonalds?’ leaflet. The
legal battle between Helen Steel and David Morris, a gardener and a
postman, and the McDonalds corporation became one of the most famous
cases in British legal history, not least because it became the
longest running British trial.
Three tips for writing
You cannot solely rely on proving that your
statements were literally true if, when they’re taken as a whole,
they have an extended, more damaging meaning. Also, for example, if
somebody was guilty of fraud once, calling him a fraudster in a way
which might suggest he’s still doing the same may well give rise to
a libel which can’t be defended. Be especially wary when referring
to events in the past.
For example, a company may run a factory which
produces certain chemicals. For you to suggest that babies will be
born deformed as a result may get you into libel trouble.
Your comments may not appear particularly defamatory taken at face value, but greater knowledge of a person or situation may make it problematic because of the innuendo. To say Mr Jones doesn’t recycle his waste paper may sound harmless enough. But to people who know that Mr Jones is a Green Party activist, the innuendo of the statement is that he is hypocritical in his politics.
4. Common mistakes and assumptions
It is inadvisable to repeat a defamatory rumour
unless you are in a position to prove it’s true. Even if you are
contradicting the rumour you should not repeat it. And adding
‘allegedly’ is not enough to get you out of libel difficulties.
If you publish defamatory remarks about people or
organisations made by other people you will be just as liable to be
sued as they are. So if you can’t prove the truth of their
statements, don’t repeat them.
It is a common mistake to draw unverifiable
conclusions from the basic facts. For example, if Mr Brown is seen
going into a hotel room with a call-girl, this does not necessarily
mean he enjoyed a ‘night of passion’, and will certainly not prove
that he did.
Be very careful about the adjectives you use. A
misplaced word can result in costly action. If you are campaigning
about a factory that releases chemicals into the atmosphere,
referring to the factory as ‘poisoning the atmosphere’ is
Presenting all sides of an argument is often good practice, but is not a defence against publishing defamatory remarks made by or about those involved.
Defences against libel
The most usual defence against libel is to prove
that the information published is true. But this can be a dangerous
route because an unsuccessful plea could increase the damages
against you because you will have increased the harm to the
complainant. And remember, you must be able to deal with every
libellous possibility, such as inference and innuendo. If your
statement infers something greater, it is not enough to prove that
the statement is just literally true. Merely asserting something
will not be sufficient to prove that it’s true - you will need
witnesses and documents to back up assertions (whether they’re yours
or someone you’re quoting).
Fair comment covers content, mainly opinion, that cannot by its very nature be true or false. To be properly defensible, these comments must be:
In 2001, the Daily Mail lost a libel action
brought by the former Tottenham Hotspur chairman Alan Sugar over the
remark that he was a "miser" when he ran the club because he didn’t
give his manager enough money to buy top class players. The jury
were not sufficiently persuaded that there was any factual basis for
making this comment. They didn’t deem it fair comment. He was
Privilege is the defence where the law recognises that individuals should be free to speak their minds (and others to report what they say) without fear of being sued even if they get their facts wrong. It allows people to speak freely in court proceedings and debates in Parliament, and allows for such proceedings to be reported, so long as the reports are both fair and accurate.
a complaint is made
If you have had material on Action Network rejected because it was potentially libellous, check through this guide to see why it might have been rejected. You will probably have to rewrite your original contribution, removing anything which cannot be proved in a court of law.