LIBEL LAWDefinitions :
1. “A false statement about a person to this discredit.”
2. “A writing tending to injure and discredit the character of a person who is the object of it.”
3. “A publication without just cause or excuse which is calculated to injure the reputation of another by exposing him to hatred, ridicule or contempt.”
4. “A defamatory statement is a statement concerning any person which exposes him to hatred, ridicule or contempt, or which causes him to be shunned or avoided, or which has tendency to injure him in his office, profession or trade.”
Defamation and Slander :
Libel is of two kinds, namely defamation and slander. Defamation is that in writing, printing or permanent form, while slander is spoken or indicated in “significant gesture.” It makes no difference whether the libel appeared in a news story, in headline, an editorial, an illustration, a letter to the editor or even in an advertisement. The responsibility lies not only on the editor and the publisher but also on all who “assisted”
in the publication.
The Law of Libel :
Libel is an offence that demands the working journalists’ constant attention. The law of libel is, of course, general in its application, but in practice journalists are especially susceptible to it and are the defendants in the great majority of actions in the courts. The law of libel must, therefore, be thoroughly studied and understood by persons working on newspapers. All journalists should bear in mind that “the freedom of the
journalist is an ordinary part of the freedom of the subject, and to whatever length the subject in general may go, so also the journalist, no privilege attaches to his position.”
The following definitions of defamation or libel are useful to bear in mind :
- “A false statement about a man to his discredit.”
- “A writing tending to injure and discredit the character of the person who is the object of it.”
- “A publication without just cause or excuse which is calculated to injure the reputation of another by exposing him to hatred, ridicule, or contempt.”
- “A defamatory statement is a statement concerning any person which exposes him to hatred, ridicule or contempt, or which causes him to be shunned or avoided, or which has a tendency to injure him in his office, profession or trade.”
Civil Libel :
The journalist is concerned, as part of his profession, merely with libel-both civil and criminal. A civil libel must refer to some particular individual, and the onus is on the plaintiff to prove that he is the person attacked. There must be a definite imputation on a person. identified. It is safe to say that all lawyers are fools, because no particular lawyer could take action unless he could show that he was indicated; but it is dangerous to give an individual application to a phrase used in irony, such as “a wise lawyer”. If a plaintiff
can convince the court or jury that he was referred to in a defamatory statement, or that some persons concluded that he was referred to, he wins his case, even though his name was not printed, but only an initial letter, asterisks, a fictitious name, or somebody else’s name, or a reference to a definite body of persons, of which he was a member.
Libelous Cases :
Perhaps the best way to get a grasp of the law of libel is to take some of the representative cases in which damages for libel have been awarded to the plaintiff. The following are such cases:
- For describing a man as “a man of straw”; for calling a person “an‘ infernal villain”, “a great defaulter”, “a frozen snake”, “an itchy old toad”, “a desperate adventurer”, “an artful scoundrel”, “a company meeting agitator”, “a hypocrite”, “a rascal”, “an impostor”, “a crook”, “a swindler”, “a loan shark”, “an anarchist”.
- For writing an obituary of a living person.
- For publishing ‘a story that made the plaintiff ridiculous, though the plaintiff himself had told the story in the first instance.
- For publishing a story of no literary merit as having been written by an author of standing.
- For publishing the picture of a wrong woman in a scandal story. For calling the works of a great artist as “willful imposture”. For writing a humorous story ridiculing a corset model. For printing that a countess is to become a mannequin.
- For omitting to report all the facts of a case in court about a barrister-at-law.
Criminal Libel :
A criminal prosecution can be brought about when the libel is clearly calculated to cause a breach of the peace, whereas, the purpose of the civil action is to vindicate the character of the person libeled. The important difference in the defence to these two forms of action is that in civil libel proof of the truth of the statement made is always a complete defence, but in criminal libel it is not; hence the lines of Thomas Moore:
For oh, ‘twas nuts to the Father of Lies,
(As this wily fiend is name in the Bible)
To find it settled by laws so wise,
That the greater the truth, the worse the libel!
In a criminal libel, printed matter might provoke a riot, or a defamed person, or a friend of his, or one whose sense of religious propriety was outraged, or whose political convictions were slighted, might be provoked to assault the publisher. Again, an article or some published matter might unsettle people’s minds as to some established institution, and thus lead to instability and even revolution and class war.
It is, however, rarely that criminal libel operates, for the law respects the freedom of the press in a democratic state, giving considerable latitude to journalists.
Civil libel is what the journalist has to guard himself against, for not only is the editor and publisher answerable before the law in such a case, but also all who “assisted” in the publication. It makes no difference whether the libel appeared in a news story, in the headline, in an editorial, in an illustration, in a letter to the editor, or even an advertisement.
Defence Against Libel :
And if the working journalist finds himself involved in a case of civil libel, what defence can he offer? Broadly speaking, he can offer four different types of defence :
(i) justification, (ii) privilege, (iii) fair comment, and (iv) apology.
These may be mentioned in some detail :
The best defence to a civil suit for libel is the tnith. Truth as a defence is called a justification. If defamatory words are proved to be true, the person attacked cannot recover damages because, as a judge expressed, it, “the law will not permit a man to recover damages in respect of an injury to a character which he either does not, or ought not to, possess.”
The onus of proving the truth of a libel is on the defendant; and he must prove that the whole libel, not merely a part of it, is true. If a headline is libellous as well as the article over which it is placed, the truth of both headline and article has to be proved. For instance, the headline, “Shameful Conduct of an Attorney,” appeared over a correct report of a court proceedings; the report was held to be true, but damages were recovered for the heading.
As a defence, privilege is permitted on the ground of public policy. Privilege is either “absolute” or “qualified”. Absolute privilege is granted to Members of Parliaments in speeches inside Parliament, of judges, counsel and witnesses in statements made in judicial proceedings, to military and state proceedings and to state documents or government communiques. A newspaper in recording any of the foregoing enjoys what is
known as qualified privilege, which means that a plaintiff cannot succeed in claiming damages from a newspaper for reporting libellous statements from the above-mentioned sources unless he proves malice, that is improper motive, on the part of the paper.
Fair Comment :
The journalist or a newspaper is free to make “fair comment” on all matters of public interest. The facts on which the comment is based must be true and the comment fair and without malice. Whether a matter: is within the comment is fair as based on the facts is a question for the jury.
The journalist must naturally knows what exactly are matters of “public interest” on which he is free to make fair comment. Matters of public interest are :
(1) all state matters, everything concerning government, parliament or parliamentary committees.
(2) the public conduct of everyone who takes part in the public affairs, but not the private conduct of such persons, save insofar as it affects their public relations.
(3) legal and ecclesiastical matters.
(4) places of public amusement or entertainment.
(5) art and literature, but not the private, character of the artist or the writer.
(6) management of public institutions.
(7) anything, in short, that invites public attention or criticism. Some judicial pronouncements should prove to be helpful.
Retraction offered by the journalist or newspaper usually lessens the amount of damages, but does not constitute complete defence. When an apology is published, it tends to prove that there was no malice on the part of the defendant.