Libel law for bloggers

Interesting guide here.

The best defence against libel is obviously never to state something as fact but always as opinion.

\”It is my opinion that Ed Millipede rogers pre-pubescent children nightly\” is not defamatory: well, not to Ed Millipede although it might well bring my own sanity into question.

Other than that, read the guide.

I have in fact been accused of libel on the earlier version of this here blog. Some music manager over in the US had been accused of rogering his boy band nightly (by the members of that boy band).

Not privileged (it wasn\’t, for example, an accusation made in court proceedings or a legislature, in which case you can report it) and so, yes, potentially a libelous statement.

However, given that said manager was clearly trying to cover his tracks (well, unless US lawyers are even more illiterate than I had thought, given the \”lawyer\’s letters\” he sent me) rather than actually instigate a libel case against me, I refused to take the offending article down.

Until the manager offered me money to do so.

Yup, bribery works around here. £400 to unpublish a blog post sounded very reasonable in fact. Especially since the original source I had lifted the story from was still online in all its glory.

6 thoughts on “Libel law for bloggers”

  1. I took down the recent post about my former employers after I got a couple of emails threatening legal action for defamation for describing certain managers as lying incompetents. I felt it just wasn’t worth the hassle, especially once I’d started with a new firm, and the post had served its purpose.

    Besides, it got picked up by the spam-bot replicators and is still easily found on those using a Google search. 🙂

  2. “It is my opinion that Ed Millipede rogers pre-pubescent children nightly” is not defamatory”

    Tim, I am not a lawyer either, but I have delved into libel law pretty deeply for an amateur (occupational hazard of blogging) and I am pretty sure that it is indeed defamatory.

    OK that exact statement about Ed made on this particular post probably isn’t defamatory because it is so obviously a jokey made-up example introduced purely to illustrate the argument – it is not, in fact your honestly held belief. And Millipede has bigger fish to fry. But for statements that might be reasonably believed, “In my opinion” is NOT enough to convert libel into non-libel.

    Otherwise no one would need to be worried about libel suits, ever, would they?

    Really, I think this statement of yours might lead someone to be less careful than they ought to be and get ’em into trouble.

    I hope that someone more expert than I will be along to comment further.

  3. Nobody more expert than I has turned up, so I have checked in a book, namely”Media Law” by Robertson and Nicol.
    From page 130:
    “The fair comment defence relates only to comment – to statements of opinion and not to statements of fact.”
    And:
    “Writers can help to characterise their criticisms as comment with phrases like “it seems to me”, “in my judgement”, ” in other words”, etc., although such devices will not always be conclusive.
    Page 131: “The defence of fair comment will not succeed if the comment is made without any factual basis.”

  4. Natalie is correct. The use of “in my opinion”, “it seems to me” and – Have I Got News For You notwithstanding – “allegedly” etc are not strict defences under UK libel law, though they may help mitigate the damages. Even the fact that the offending words appear in what is obviously an opinion piece – as perhaps 99.9% of blogs are – is not a defence.
    Nina Myskow famously lost a libel case when she wrote in a TV review (in a column titled “The Bitch on the Box”, so the reader wouldn’t have exactly been expecting searing investigative journalism) that Charlotte Cornwall “can’t sing, her bum is too big, and she has the sort of stage presence that blocks lavatories.”
    For a defence of fair comment to succeed, it must be shown that that it is the honestly held opinion of the writer and that there is an absence of malice. Obviously the choice of words used to voice that comment go some way to determining the latter.
    Note that it is up to the defendant to show this: in libel, once of the offending words are deemed to be defamatory, the normal laws of justice are reversed and it is up to the defendant to prove their innocence rather than the claimant to prove they have been harmed. And unlike the US, in the UK (and other countries that base their common law on the UK’s) it is no defence to use the mere fact the subject is well-known or prominent and therefore fair game for abuse.
    So for Tim to say “It is my opinion that Ed Millipede rogers pre-pubescent children nightly” would definitely be actionable, and Millipede would probably win, even if Tim could convince a jury he honestly held that opinion (it would be no defence to merely say he based that opinion of what he had heard or read elsewhere).
    However, he might have a defence if he wrote “It is my opinion that Ed Millipede acts like a man who rogers pre-pubescent children nightly”, since he would not be imputing a specific act, merely a specific pose (as Queensberry famously did to Oscar Wilde, which is why the playwright lost his initial libel case and laid himself open to criminal prosecution).
    But libel is a minefield with many unexploded IEDs waiting to be triggered. Libel law – like many subjects such, um, economics comes to mind – is an inexact science.

  5. Natalie and Morpork are right: opinions need to be actual opinions, not disguised factual statements (saying “it is my opinion that [provable or disprovable factual statement X]” is exactly the same, semantically, as just saying statement X.

    So “I believe Ed Miliband looks like a paedo” is fine; “I believe Ed Miliband buggers boys” is definitely not; and “I believe Ed Miliband acts like a man who buggers boys” is questionable, but not one I’d want to be defending in libel court.

  6. Actually I think the libel laws should be done away with for the internet because chat, comment sections of forums or newspapers are just idle ill thought out chatter. Thus it is more like slander and you’ve got to prove that you’ve suffered damage. Soon UK laws will also alter a bit to make sure some real damage has occurred. Or soon no-one will be able to write or say anything about anyone.

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