Defamation

The law of defamation allows individuals, groups of individuals, companies or firms to sue for damage to their reputation. You can defame someone by publishing material in various forms and people can sue so long as the material can be reasonably understood to be referring to them. Some changes have been made by the Defamation Act 2013 which came into force in England and Wales on 1 January 2014.

This is a very brief summary of the law on defamation for journalists. It should not be relied on to make any assessment as to whether content is potentially defamatory. BBC journalists should always take advice from the BBC’s legal team.

The law of defamation allows individuals, companies or firms (‘claimants’) to sue for damage to their reputation caused by material that is published and which makes defamatory comments about them. Something is defamatory if it:  

  • Lowers them in the estimation of right-thinking members of the public; and/or
  • Causes them to be shunned or avoided; and/or
  • Disparages them in their office, trade or profession; and/or
  • Exposes them to hatred ridicule or contempt.

Some changes have been made by the Defamation Act 2013 which came into effect in England and Wales on 1 January 2014. Under the new law claimants have to show that the publication has caused, or is likely to cause, ‘serious harm’ to their reputation.

If the claimant is a body that trades for profit, such as a company, serious harm is defined as ‘serious financial loss’.

It is up to the courts to decide how they interpret “serious harm” in individual cases.

Publication

You can defame someone by publishing material in various forms. These include:  

  • Via newspapers or other printed media
  • Broadcasting on radio and TV
  • On the web - including online forums, social media and micro-blogging sites
  • By email.

You also risk defaming someone if you repeat defamatory comments previously made or published by others - for example, quoting a defamatory newspaper story about them in an interview or blog.  

A claimant would need to show that the defamatory material can be reasonably understood to refer to them - even if they are not named specifically. 

Defences 

Some of the defences have been amended by the latest legislation. The main ones are: 

  • Truth - the publisher must  prove the comments are true
  • Honest opinion - the opinion must be genuinely held and based on fact
  • Privilege - the scope of this defence has been extended
  • Publication in the public interest - a new defence.  

Northern Ireland

The Northern Ireland Assembly has opted not to incorporate into its own legislation the changes which came into effect on 1January 2014 and defamation law in the province remains the same as that which existed in England and Wales prior to that date. Consequently, some of the definitions and defences outlined above are not applicable to cases brought in the province. 

Scotland 

Defamation law in Scotland has always had some significant differences from that in the rest of the UK. Since very little of the Defamation Act 2013 applies to Scotland, the differences are now more acute. Most notably, the new public interest defence does not apply in Scotland and someone bringing a defamation action has much longer in which to sue.

Theterminology used in the Scottish legal system is also different. The main terms to be aware of are that: 

  • the person making the claim in a defamation case in Scotland is called a ‘pursuer’
  • the person defending themselves against a defamation claim is called a ‘defender’
  • the defence that a statement is true is called ‘veritas’
  • there is a defence of ‘fair comment’ which is similar to ‘honest opinion’.

 

The College of Journalism offers face-to-face and online courses for BBC staff:

Law & Standards

BBC training is available to non-BBC staff on a commercial basis.