What do you know about libel?

Photo Credit: IXQuick/Flickr Let’s imagine for a moment there was a story in the papers about a celebrity recently, who apparently housed their kids in a separate house, with a team of nannies caring for them.

As a blogger, you might be tempted to write about the story, perhaps expressing your view that this constitutes neglectful parenting. Perhaps someone in your comments says that the celebrity is a terrible parent and we should stop going to see their films in protest. Later it turns out the story was completely untrue. The celebrity complains and the paper prints a retraction and apology.

Q: Who in this story has potentially committed libel: the paper, the blogger, or the commenter?

A: All of them.

If you didn’t get the right answer, and you’re blogging, you need to know more about libel. Simply put, libel law exists to protect our moral and professional reputations. Any statement that might harm that reputation can be considered to be defamation (if printed) or slander (if spoken).

Any time you publish a statement on the internet that might cause someone’s reputation to be harmed, you are potentially committing libel. That applies in any context – whether you’re reviewing a toy, writing about a celebrity news story, or describing your children’s school teachers.

I know it’s tempting to think libel law doesn’t apply to you. You’re small fry in the world of publishing, and nobody would worry about that, right?

Tell that to Yachting World, a tiny magazine with a 12,000-strong circulation. It ran a review of a yacht that claimed there were serious discrepancies between what the yacht could do and what the manufacturers’ claimed it could do. The yacht company successfully sued for libel, and the judge awarded the yacht company £1.4m in damages.

Then there’s the Liverpool radio station that ran a programme inviting listeners to call in with complaints about holiday companies. Someone made an allegation that was libellous – the radio station was successfully sued for libel, and had to pay £350,000 in damages. Think about that next time your blog comments section gets a bit heated.

There are some successful ways to defend a libel claim – if your statement was true; if it was an honestly held opinion of a true fact, expressed without malice; if it was made in a situation where there is privilege such as parliament; or the person concerned is dead.

There are some defences that can’t be applied to libel – you thought it was true; you were only repeating what someone else said; you took the post down when you realised it was libellous; the person you’re writing about could only be identified by one or two other people.

Next time: copyright and why it’s not just a pretty logo at the bottom of websites.

About 

Sally is a full-time blogger and founder of the HIBS100, Foodies100 and Tots100 - an online community of more than 15,000 UK bloggers. She is also a busy single Mum to Flea, the world's coolest eight year old.

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39 Comments

  1. says

    Thanks Sally, a very useful article. We all say things from the relative safety and perceived anonymity of our blogs that could fall into the grey area, and occasionally be classed as out and out libelous. A timely reminder.

  2. Nova says

    I understand the law is there to protect the innocent and to potentially avoid what could amount to bullying but not being allowed to give your opinion on a product is ludicrous….so much for free speech and all that.
    Thanks, an informative post.

  3. says

    @Peabee – yes, the idea that a blog is in any way, shape or form anonymous is one of the biggest myths around. You are NEVER anonymous.
    @Moiderer – thanks!
    @Nova – I think the point to remember is that if you honestly think a product doesn’t work, or isn’t very good, that’s fine. Just be careful not to impune dodgy motives to the manufacturer. So you could say, “I tested Sally’s cookies and I THOUGHT they were revolting.” You couldn’t really say: “Sally told me her cookies were delicious but obviously she’s a lying git, they were disgusting.” Just be sure to always honestly report only your experience and your opinions.

  4. Liz (LivingwithKids) says

    Very useful post Sally. I’ve been getting increasingly alarmed by some of the things I’ve seen on blogs recently, and also in the comments sections – in fact I advised a blogger to remove a comment recently because it was libellous.
    Look forward to reading the one on copyright (particularly in relation to images).

  5. says

    Very interesting post. Thank you Sally for taking us through this minefield. So easy to get carried away, particularly when commenting, as there is a tendency to rattle off a reply in the heat of the moment.

  6. says

    Thank you for this. I think that it is great that you are helping me know where to draw the line. I have to agree though you can say what you want without brining libel in to things most of the time.

  7. says

    Well done you for writing this. I have a friend in Singapore who slagged off a restaurant in a group email & on facebook. Long story cut short meant a costly legal debate with the restaurant via solicitors and an apologetic retraction by her via email & facebook.
    MD x

  8. says

    @Brit – thanks for the comment. If you libelled someone in the UK (say) then the chances are they wouldn’t pursue you directly but would pursue your hosting company in the case of a blog, and simply have your blog taken offline. If they had SUPER deep pockets, it’s possible to take action in a foreign country, but it’s unlikely. In fact, for most bloggers, the most likely first outcome of a blog libel action would be your ISP or host taking down the blog, since they are equally liable for the libel along with you.
    @CJ- yes, and you raise the important point that ‘no names’ doesn’t mean you’re okay. The law is that if any third party could reasonably identify who you’re talking about, it’s still libellous. For that reason, if I’m doing a no names post I will often make small changes like switching someone’s gender, location, age and similar.
    @Heather – glad it’s been an eye-opener in that case!

  9. says

    Wow what an eye opener, glad I read it and will stick to writing about myself and being careful how I do it. Look forward to the copyright post too!

  10. says

    Very Interesting.
    And a tiny bit scary- where does an opinion end and libel start?
    If I said ‘oh I think {insert random celeb here} is a crappy mummy’ – could random celeb take me to the cleaners?

  11. says

    wow – this really is an eye opener. i have seen posts/comments on others blogs and wonder what on earth that person would say/think/do if they read that about themselves! It is like a diary sometimes, except there is a tendency to forget the whole world can read it easily.
    I’m off to check back over my blog. But it is also a sage reminder that I will keep my blog as positive as possible and not talk about others!!!
    Amelia.x
    PS. found you via BMB signatures discussion – so much easier when there’s a link to a blog at the bottom of a comment!

  12. says

    Very interesting and useful information. Nice to have it in plain English too and not legal jargon that makes no sense! Thank you for posting this.
    Looking forward to the next instalment too.

  13. says

    Wow. Just…wow. I think (better add that on!) the libel laws here are ridiculous. Without proof of intent to defame or slander, this leaves its interpretation so broad as to almost render it meaningless. But thanks for the reminder, I sometimes forget how stringent it is in the UK.

  14. says

    @Jo – yes, and I think some parenting blogs are so focused that tehy are seen as being incredibly influential – if a brand realises that your post on their baby food appears on the first page of Google results for that product name, you’re influential even if you only have 20 readers a day – and you’re equally liable for your comments, too. We all need to be a LOT more aware, I think.
    @littledude’smummy – the dividing line is whether you’re making what’s called “fair comment”.
    A) In English law, you are allowed to have strong opinions, they might even be offensive to some people – that’s all allowed. But your opinions have to be based on true facts (so if the celeb HAD housed their kids in a separate house, you’re allowed to express any opinion you choose to about that)
    B) Your views must be honestly held, not motivated by malice – for example, if you had a long-running feud with the celebrity, your comments might be open to another interpretation.
    C)Your opinion must be restricted to the facts at hand. If you don’t like a specific product, that’s fine, but if you stray into saying a person is unfit to do their job, that a company is dishonest, that they are incompetent – then you’re on dodgy ground.
    Amelia – good advice!
    @PrincessL – you’re welcome, glad you found it useful!
    @Andy – thanks!

  15. says

    @NobleSavage – the law does take into account intention when considering whether something is ‘fair comment’ but if you state something as fact and it’s libellous, then it’s libellous, regardless of whether you meant it to be, or not. The rule is that the jury would be asked to take the view of the ‘average’ man – would it consider them to have a lower opinion of the plaintiff? If so, then it’s libel.
    You’re right, the rules are stringent but in most cases you’re unlikely to end up in court if you can promptly remove something, apologise and post a retraction. But that said, it really worries me when I see very heated comments (in particular) that make the most awful accusations about people that couldn’t be seen as anything OTHER than malicious, and people are leaving themselves wide open.
    I think just be aware, and don’t get carried away, is the best advice.

  16. says

    I was under the impression that the ISP/hosting site would also be libel- cf a court case involving Demon Internet a few years ago?
    I’ve been called all sorts of things on the internet since about 1993, but with the exception of two mummybloggers doing it via private twitter accounts, its all been to my face and is water off a ducks back, disagreements happen all the time after all.
    People are so much braver when you’re anonymous at the end of a keyboard and they think you can’t see what they’re writing :)

  17. says

    @Alex – just because the ISP is liable doesn’t mean the individual poster isn’t. So, if you look at conventional publishing, when someone writes for a magazine if they commit libel, the magazine and writer are both equally liable, but (technically) so are the printers and publishers. That’s why so many magazines insist freelance writers sign contracts that the magazine won’t be held liable in the event of a libel action.
    In reality, most people would go after both the ISP and the blogger, but you certainly shouldn’t assume liability stops with your host or ISP. Bad, bad mistake to make.

  18. says

    @FoodieMummy – It’s mostly common sense. If you are slating anyone on your blog (whether an individual or a company) make sure
    a) you differentiate clearly between opinion and fact
    b) you are expressing opinions ONLY on things you KNOW to be true, or stating facts you KNOW to be true
    c) If you’re expressing opinions that they are not motivated by malice, but are honestly held.
    If you do all of that, you’re pretty safe!

  19. says

    Great post Sally, really, really helpful information here. I am learning lots here about the internet, which I am finding useful even in my proper work. Keep it up!

  20. says

    It’s a really interesting area. Do you know if there have been any/many cases of a blogger being successfully sued?
    My tuppence worth is that while it’s really important to ensure that you observe fair comment and that any claims or allegations can be supported by evidence, I think big companies use bullying tactics to suppress comment. A nasty looking legal letter might be enough for someone to take down a perfectly legally sound, but critical, post. The other thing that bothers me a bit is that in the printed world if you say something about an individual or organisation then they get the right of reply. Perhaps that’s something bloggers should think of doing. What do you think?
    Just thought of something else. Online conversations about criminal matters are interesting too. For example, Jon Venebles has not been convicted of a second crime. If a newspaper talked about him as if he had they would find themselves in contempt of court, what position are bloggers in?

  21. says

    @Ellen
    Great points. What I’d say is:
    a) Understanding libel can EMPOWER you against bullying. Lots of people without a knowledge of libel might squeak in terror in the face of a legal letter implying some terrible action is forthcoming. But if you KNOW you’ve acted within the law, you’re a lot more able to stand up to bullies. I’ve done it myself when I’ve been accused of libelling someone, and I say, “I did media law, and I don’t consider what I said libel. Feel free to pay a lawyer to tell you the same thing.”
    b) One of the things you should do if you think you MIGHT have committed libel is to consider what the person is asking for. If they ask to you take down a post, or to acknowledge your mistake, and you do so, promptly, then this would be taken into account in any subsequent legal action – you’re a LOT less likely to be even taken to court if you can show you’ve done this. Offering a proactive right to reply isn’t something papers do as a rule – you’re just asking for an injunction!
    c) Yes, you can be in contempt as a blogger just as easily as a newspaper could. The thing to remember is you blog, you’re a publisher. Whether you’re paid or not is 100 percent irrelevant. the law is the law.

  22. says

    A really useful post Sally, thank you…
    *goes off to check blog for slanderous content*
    Sounds like a silly question but does it count the other way, like if you say something nice and it’s not true? For example if your best mate has a company that you praise the hell out of and they turn out to be not very good.
    I also wonder about big debates like breastfeeding vs. formula where big companies are attacked, or boycotting companies because of what people think their policies are for example. Is it likely that a big company would sue you?

  23. says

    You’re absolutely right – knowledge of how it works is necessary to stand up to corporate bullies.
    Yes, I that’s right, listening to what they want if you think you might have got it wrong. They probably just want the claims to go away – in practice they are unlikely to see any point in going after someone blogging from their spare room. They know there’s no money to be had.
    I was just pondering the right of reply thing today. Does a comment field in a blog constitute someone being able to put their side of the story? You’re absolutely right that asking for comment could result in an injunction in some cases. But I was always taught that it was good practice to get a reaction – mind you, my training was, er, quite a long time ago and in Scotland!

  24. says

    Wow, that’s made me think. Usually if I’m rude, it’s about “The Midwest”, so I guess I’m unlikely to be had up for that. But I’ll be more careful now.

  25. Liz (LivingwithKids) says

    Ellen A – I was taught that too, on the nationals in London. We weren’t allowed to print stories without a RoR.

  26. says

    @Liz @Ellen – you’re right but the RoR has no legal basis – you’re not obligated to do it, and these days, with the rise of the super-injunction they’re much less likely to offer it on a big story. But for most bloggers, I think the comment box is an in-built right of reply, you certainly wouldn’t expect a blogger to approach someone offering them right of reply before posting, would you?

  27. says

    Wow! Great post and it’s nice to learn something as well!
    I am generally a positive person so I write the way I am, but if I have to be negative about something I try to be balanced and honest about it.
    The way I decide about what to publish is, I take a second to pay attention to how I feel about what I’ve just written. The ‘gut reaction’ style of monitoring!!
    If I feel uncomfortable in any way about what I’ve put, I don’t publish. I might re-word it until I’m happy but I don’t publish things I’m not confident about being challenged on.
    Great post Sally and some insightful comments!

  28. says

    Very interesting post I just gave it a tweet as I am sure not many people know that. As a former journalist I am sure to check my sources but I didn’t realise the comments people leave could also put you in hot water!
    Will be more careful in highlighting “personal opinion” in future.
    Thanks for sharing this,
    Treasa

Trackbacks

  1. [...] Don’t bitch – Like any form of entertainment, journalism works best when there’s a conflict. Journalists love a good moral outrage, or a David/Goliath story, or a passionate disagreement. Don’t give it to them. Don’t slate other bloggers, or companies, or brands – as well as looking like an idiot in print, you might find yourself on the wrong side of a libel action if you’re not careful (see here for tips on libel for bloggers) [...]