In law, a person is defamed if statements in a publication expose him to hatred or ridicule, cause him to be shunned, lower him in the estimation in the minds of "right-thinking" members of society or disparage him in his work.
Juries are told that the measuring stick of a libel being committed is whether any of this would affect how a "reasonable man" views the complainant.
There are defences in law for libel. The publisher could prove the statement to be true, it could be fair comment - so long as the opinion is based on true facts, is genuinely held and not influenced by malice - or it could be protected by privilege (reporting of comments made in parliament, courts and other official arenas are, generally speaking, protected from libel actions).
Since the 1998 Reynolds claim against Times Newspapers, it has become accepted that material published in the public interest is a further defence in libel proceedings.
The problem for anyone preparing to publish information which may be defamatory, is that the laws are very much open to interpretation. Different juries will have different views on what exactly influences a right-thinking man.
What is certain is that the legal costs of defending a libel action will be considerable, often running into hundreds of thousands of pounds. The loser almost always has to pay the costs of the winner, plus any damages awarded to the claimant.
In effect, fighting libel cases is an expensive game of chicken, which newspapers are often reluctant to enter into, even when they believe they have a strong case.
The emergence of the internet has further complicated the issue. Individuals now have a simple way of putting their writings online - with little or no review or vetting.
Over the past decade, forums and online chats have introduced a new genre of writing, that in effect provides a written record of raw, impulsive conversations where most participants have paid scant consideration to any legal implications.
Furthermore, internet postings can be read anywhere, bringing into question issues of jurisdiction. The internet has also been seen as a place where people can express themselves anonymously, although the rise of successful online child pornography and grooming prosecutions has raised awareness of the trail left by ISP addresses.
Finally, there have also been past doubts about who is the actual publisher of online information and what, if any, protection they should have from being sued. In print, the primary publisher is the newspaper and any libel action would normally be directed against the author or editor or both.
It is rare, though not unheard of, for the shop which sold the publication, known as the secondary publisher, also to have to pay out. The issue with online articles is whether the publisher is the person who runs the website, or the ISP which hosts it.Related articles
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