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Free Journalism Lessons, Page 7 of 7

Email me: m and ep_AT_ang elfire _DOT_ com (remove spaces etc to make it work).

Legal stuff

Defamation defences



Nothing in this section is a substitute for qualified legal advice. Careful reading of MacNae's Essential Law for Journalists will help to keep you out of trouble in many situations, but avoid the temptation to be your own lawyer. Find one with a good working knowledge of defamation and consult him or her.

British Law

You know already that you should not copy other people's work and pass it off as your own, nor should they do that to you. Nor should work be reproduced without the originator's permission, for which it may be necessary to pay a fee.
Copyright law is concerned with people's right to benefit from their work, and not have others benefit from their work unlawfully. Most countries adhere to the Berne Convention on copyright.
In Britain the relevant law is the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988, which protects the products of people's skill, creativity, labour or time, and covers "any literary, dramatic, artistic or musical work, sound recording, film, broadcast or typographical arrangement" (MacNae's Essential Law for Journalists).
Artistic works include photos and graphics; "typographical arrangement" covers the way pages are set out.

Copyright does not have to be registered or declared in Britain; it exists from the moment the work is created. The only safe assumption is that work is copyright. Even if the author has been dead for more than 70 years (see "Duration" for an explanation) there may still be a copyright.
If your work is done "in the course of your employment", copyright normally belongs to your employer. But freelances, even when doing ordered work, retain their copyright unless they have signed to the contrary.
People guilty of infringing copyright may face criminal prosecution. More often the copyright owner obtains an injunction to prevent the infringement; they may also seek damages, and an order for the possession of infringing copies and material used in the infringement (which has included the entire contents of a printing works).


Libel & Slander

Defamation is a minefield. Always seek legal advice.
These notes are just an introduction to a complex subject.
Slander refers to spoken defamation, libel to published defamatory statements including those written, printed, or broadcast on radio or television.

Judges tell juries that statements about a person which do any of the following things are defamatory:
In libel actions the judge decides if the words complained of are capable of holding a defamatory meaning, the jury decides if they were defamatory.

To succeed in a civil libel action, the plaintiff must prove that the statement complained of:
Just as important are what the plaintiff does not need to prove:
Someone could sue for libel even if the people to whom the statement was published knew it to be untrue. Only a tendency to discredit need be shown; the court assumes damage.

A cautionary true case: A prominent public figure stated publicly that of a dozen people in his town pursuing a particular profession, eleven were honest.
This clearly meant that he thought one of them was not.
How many were able to sue for defamation? Answer: All of them. Because he did not identify who he thought was the odd one out, the imputation of dishonesty would apply equally to each of them.

Defamation Defences


Every day clearly defamatory statements are published.
They drag people's reputations down, hold them up to "hatred, ridicule or contempt"; how do the publishers get away with it?
One defence is Justification, which in non-lawyer language means the words complained of are true in substance and in fact.
It is a complete defence and also one of the most difficult.

Fair comment

Opinions expressed in good faith and without malice on a matter of public interest are safe - but read on.
The facts upon which the comment is based must be true. The only exception is where the comment is based on privileged material (see Privilege) such as a court report.
The defendant need not persuade the judge or jury to share the opinions which may be exaggerated, obstinate or prejudiced as long as they are honestly held.

Accord & Satisfaction

This defence to a libel action simply means that the matter has been otherwise dealt with. For example, the plaintiff has accepted the publication of a correction and apology.

Unintentional defamation

If the defamation was not foreseeable, as when a fictitious character is identifiable with a real person or where facts unknown to the writer make the statement defamatory. Under the 1952 Defamation Act there is a defence if: the words complained of were published innocently and an offer of amends is made in accordance with the Act.

Other defences