Our proofreading course explains the laws a copy editor should be aware of, and how to apply them to a range of situations.
In short, libel law protects individuals from untruthful attacks on their reputation. A person is libelled if the words cause, or are likely to cause, serious harm to their reputation, by:
- Causing them to be shunned or avoided.
- Lowering them in the eyes of right-thinking people.
- Exposing them to ridicule, hatred or contempt.
- Disparaging them in their office, trade or profession.
We call this the CLED definition.
Were the words defamatory according to the CLED definition above? These are some of the dangers:
- Obvious risks: It is dangerous to claim that someone is guilty of criminal or antisocial behaviour, unqualified for their job or incompetent. How would you feel if someone said that about you?
- Questioning motives: This is dangerous whether it is in news stories or comment pieces. Motives are almost impossible to prove.
- Meanings of words: You should be aware of words that change meanings, and keep pace with them. You may use a word in one context, but if a reader can reasonably place another meaning on it, the publisher could be liable for libel.
- Innuendoes: An innuendo is a hidden meaning that will be understood by someone with special knowledge.
- Implications: It is not safe to suggest something. You may as well come straight out and say it. You will still have to prove what you are implying is true.#
- Denials: Publishing a denial does not make a defamatory allegation safe. The publisher will still have to prove the precise truth of the allegation, even though it has been denied.
- Juxtaposition: Check that stories, headlines and pictures close to each other do not create the possibility of misinterpretation. Also, make sure that people are correctly identified in photos.
- Archived material: If it was libellous once, it will be again. If you are editing extracts that use court copy, check to see if there was a successful appeal or if convictions are spent under the Rehabilitation of Offenders Act (RoA 1974).
- Headlines: Are they an accurate reflection of the copy?
- Arrests: Beware of naming people who have been arrested, unless police have named them at a press conference or in an official statement.
- Fair stories: Giving both sides of the story does not make a defamatory allegation safe. The publisher will still have to prove the precise truth of the allegation.
- Careless adjectives: Take care with adjectives used alongside defamatory allegations in introductions or headlines.
- Wrong conclusions: 2 + 2 = 5.
- Using the word “alleged”. This does not make a defamatory statement safer. In fact, it could make it worse.
See our proofreading course