Proofreading Course: Defamation


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:

  1. Causing them to be shunned or avoided.
  2. Lowering them in the eyes of right-thinking people.
  3. Exposing them to ridicule, hatred or contempt.
  4. 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:

  1. 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?
  2. Questioning motives: This is dangerous whether it is in news stories or comment pieces. Motives are almost impossible to prove.
  3. 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.
  4. Innuendoes: An innuendo is a hidden meaning that will be understood by someone with special knowledge.
  5. 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.#
  6. 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.
  7. 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.
  8. 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).
  9. Headlines: Are they an accurate reflection of the copy?
  10. Arrests: Beware of naming people who have been arrested, unless police have named them at a press conference or in an official statement.
  11. 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.
  12. Careless adjectives: Take care with adjectives used alongside defamatory allegations in introductions or headlines.
  13. Wrong conclusions: 2 + 2 = 5.
  14. Using the word “alleged”. This does not make a defamatory statement safer. In fact, it could make it worse.

See our proofreading course