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Defamation, slander and libel explained following two high-profile cases

Disputes / 12 November 2020

Two high profile individuals, two separate allegations of libel, two lost applications. We consider these two cases below along with a summary of the law relating to defamation,  slander and libel in the UK.

In the last two weeks, the High Court handed down two separate judgments relating to allegations of libel. The first involved a Russian businessman, Aleksej Gubarev,  in his claim against Christopher Steele over allegations he was involved in hacking Democrat computer systems before the 2016 US election. The second involved the Hollywood actor Johnny Depp in his action against the Sun newspaper after they described him in an article as a ‘wife-beater’.

What is defamation, slander and libel?
Under Article 10(2) of the European Convention on Human Rights, defamation is one of the valid reasons for limiting a person’s freedom of expression.

A defamatory statement is one which injures the reputation of another person, generally speaking by lowering someone’s estimation of another person. Defamation is split into two separate categories:

1.       Slander is defamation of a person through a transient form of communication, such as speech.

2.       Libel is defamation of a person through a permanent form, such as the written word.

Defamation is not limited to linguistic forms and photographs, paintings, illustrations, cartoons, status and bodily gestures can also be regarded as defamatory.

Bringing a claim for defamation

Key points for bringing a claim for defamation include:

—  An action for defamation can be brought by an individual or a company, in respect of statements that damage its business’ reputation.

—  In order to pursue a claim in slander it is the general rule that the claimant must prove that the slander has caused it some tangible damage. Whereas in order to pursue a claim for liable it is necessary to show that the libel has either caused damage or it is likely to have caused damage.

—  Typically, when bringing a claim for defamation, a claimant will seek: (i) damages to compensate it for the harm caused by the defamatory material and to vindicate their reputation and (ii) an interim injunction, to prevent further publication of the defamatory material.

—  Subject to limited exceptions, a claimant has one year to bring an action for defamation against the alleged defendant from the date the defamatory material was published. Any defamation claim should therefore be brought as soon as practicable.

Defences to defamation
There are several defences to an action for defamation, including truth, honest opinion, forms of privilege, innocent dissemination, consent and public interest.

In the two recent cases mentioned above, the High Court agreed that the comments made in the publications about Gubarev and Depp were defamatory and caused serious harm to their respective reputations. However, in both instances, the High Court dismissed the libel claims.

In the Gubarev case, this was due to the fact that it could not be proved that the defendant was legally responsible for publishing the defamatory material.  In the Depp case, the judge found that the allegations made by The Sun that Depp was a ‘wife beater’ were true, meaning The Sun could rely on the truth defence.

If you need help protecting your or your business’ reputation following potentially defamatory comments (written or otherwise), please get in touch with our experienced Disputes team. Linked to this, our Employment team recently published an article entitled “The Trouble with Twitter:  Five Top Tips for Employers”, which may be of interest.

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