Wednesday, 20 October 2010

'Law for Journalists' - Chapter 17 Raw Notes

Meaning of Words

Inference:
  • An inference is a statement with a secondary meaning which can be understood by someone without special knowledge who 'reads between the lines in the light of his general knowledge and experience of wordly affairs'
The test of what words mean is again the test of the reasonable person. NOT the meaning intended by the person who wrote the words

The words must be read in full and in their contest. Juxtaposition is a constant danger for journalists, particularly for sub-editors and those dealing with production. Those editing footage must take care how pictures interact with each other, and with any commentary

Innuendos
  • An innuendo is a statement which may seem to be innocuous to some people but which will be seen as defamatory by people with special knowledge
The libel claimant who argues that he/she has been defamed by an innuendo must show not only that the special facts or circumstances giving rise to the innuendo exist, but also that these facts are known to the people to whom the statement complained of was published

Bane and Antidote

Just as a defamatory meaning may be conveyed by a particular context, so a defamatory meaning may be removed by the context. A judge in 1835 said that, if in one part of a publication something disreputable to the claimant was stated that was removed by the conclusion, 'the bane and the antidote must be taken together'

Lord Nichols, another of the law lords, warned that words in the text of an article would not always be efficacious to 'cure' a defamatory headline. 'It all depends on the context, one element in which is the layout of the article. Those who print defamatory headlines are playing with fire'

Why might a media organisation be reluctant to fight a defamation action?
  • Uncertainty of how a jury will interpret meanings: The statement that seems to one person quite innocuous may, equally clearly, be defamatory to another
  • Difficulty in proving truth: Even if a journalist and his/her editor are convinced of the truth of a story, they may be unable to prove it in court. Witnesses may be reluctant to give evidence, for example
  • Huge damages could be awarded if trial lost: Libel damages are normally determined by a jury. We do not know how such juries reach their decisions, but there is little doubt that in general they find it a difficult and confusing job and some how awarded huge sums
  • Huge costs: The damages award is frequently exceeded by the legal costs, which are generally met by the loser
  • It may be better to settle out of court: Faced with high figures for costs and damages, some may decide to settle out of court by payment of agreed damages
Errors and Apologies

Sometimes publication of the words that cause the libel problem are not the result of a conscious decision but the result of an innocent error.

This results in a solicitors letter from 'the other side' which may lead eventually to a High Court libel hearing

Sometimes, publishing an apology or an inadequate correction can itself, in certain situations, create a further libel problem

The most common cause of libel actions against media organisations is the journalist's failure to apply professional standards of accuracy and fairness. The best protection against getting involved in an expensive action is to make every effort to get the story right

It's often useful to approach stories like so. Remember:
  • Who am I writing about, will they sue?
  • Is what I am writing potentially defamatory?
  • Do I have a defence?

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