Proofreading Course: What is libel?


Our proofreading course explains the laws a copy editor should be aware of, and how to apply them to a range of situations.

What is libel?

Most clients have their texts checked for legal issues before sending them to a copy editor. But, some do not, and a good copy editor should be able to spot potential legal dangers.

The laws of libel in the UK are strict and it can be very expensive if a publisher gets it wrong. Damages can run into hundreds of thousands or even millions of pounds. And, the costs can be just as high.

So, it is important that you have a working knowledge of the areas of libel law that could affect your work as a copy editor.

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.

So, what is a defamatory statement?

A simple test is to ask yourself: “How would I feel if someone wrote this about me?”

How would you feel if a magazine, book or report branded you a thief, pervert, conman or liar, or said you were incompetent, corrupt or dishonest? The chances are that you would not like it. Neither would the person that your client is writing about.

However, if a publisher can prove that a statement is substantially true, then they will win their case. But, this can be difficult, as we will see later on.

Here are some typical libellous statements

They should not be used unless the publisher has cast-iron proof that they are true.

  1. Individual, X, (who may or may not be named explicitly) has committed some criminal or seriously antisocial act.
  2. X is a liar, is dishonest or has committed a fraudulent act.
  3. X took a bribe; X tried to bribe Y.
  4. X stole from Y; X is a thief.
  5. X is violent or abusive.
  6. X damaged Y’s property.
  7. X is a drugs dealer, a drug user or, simply, “is involved in” drugs.
  8. X is a hypocrite.
  9. X is bankrupt; is nearly bankrupt or has serious financial problems.
  10. X owes money which he will not (or cannot) pay back.
  11. X exploits others in some way.
  12. Company Z is dishonest (for whatever reason).
  13. Z’s products are substandard, of poor quality, etc.
  14. Z’s activities are damaging the environment.
  15. Z is bankrupt, is nearly bankrupt or is in financial trouble.

Libel is full of pitfalls for the publisher and therefore, the copy editor, such as:

  1. If someone publishes something defamatory, they are responsible for it, even if someone else said it.
  2. You can libel someone by accident and still be liable.
  3. Da mage is assumed; it does not have to be proved.
  4. You can be sued if the reader places a different meaning on words than the author intended them to have.
  5. The reader does not have to prove the words were false. The publisher has to prove they were true, and to a very high standard.

See our proofreading course