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Defamation - The Basics

Thursday, 6 December 2012

The laws of defamation tend to receive most attention in relation to the media-celebrity relationship that dominates today’s news flow. There is no shortage of litigation passing through the English courts each year detailing lurid stories published in newspapers and allegations of defamation that follow in their wake.

It would be wrong for individuals to think that defamation is something only the famous need concern themselves with though. The advent of mass electronic communication networks and instant access to audiences through channels such as blogs, Twitter and Facebook mean even the most casual comment can lead to litigation.

What Constitutes Defamation?
The traits that make up a defamatory statement have been refined through a substantial body of case law over time. However, no precise definition of defamation actually exists.
Generally a statement will be considered defamatory if it:
  • Tends to lower a person in the estimation of right thinking members of society generally;
  • Causes a person to be shunned or avoided;
  • Causes a person to be exposed to hatred, ridicule or contempt; or
  • Causes a person to be disparaged in his office, profession, calling, trade or business

A defamatory statement does not have to be personal but, as noted above, can be made in respect of a person’s business or profession also.

In making a judgement about whether a statement is defamatory a court will consider what the words mean to an ordinary person. If they would be understood on that meaning to be defamatory by an ordinary person it is likely to be actionable defamation.

If a statement is found to be defamatory, the legal presumption is that the statement is false and it is up to the defendant accused of making it to prove otherwise.

A Need for Caution
Although there are a number of defences to a defamation action, the only sure-fire way for individuals to avoid a defamation action is to avoid making derogatory comments. An off-the-cuff remark on Twitter for example could prove very costly in financial and personal terms if the target decides to pursue the author. Alternatively, a defamatory statement will not be actionable if it is true but proving that can still be an expensive and arduous task.

With ease of communication to mass audiences now widely available to anyone with an internet connection, discretion is certainly the better part of valour.

If you have any questions about communication laws Rollingsons has experienced lawyers who can assist you. If you need advice or would like more information please contact James Crighton via e-mail or by phone on 0207 611 4848.