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Intentional/Accidental Defamation

Current affairs programmes and films will often intentionally broadcast defamatory allegations about individuals and/or companies. This will only occur after a thorough investigation by the programme-makers and a detailed examination of the evidence by the broadcaster and its editorial and legal advisors. However, it is possible to libel a person or a company accidentally. The juxtaposition of someone's picture next to a piece of sync or commentary may accidentally libel that person. For example, showing an entirely innocent member of the public walking through Customs, juxtaposed with a piece of commentary or sync about the illegal importation of drugs may well give the false impression that the person shown is a drug smuggler. This would amount to a libel of that person. Great care must be taken to avoid such accidental libels.

A common cause of claims for libel is the incorrect use of photographs in connection with particular stories, for example individuals whose photographs have mistakenly been used in news programmes, in connection with terrorist offences, have sued and received substantial damages. It is vital that producers take great care to ensure that the correct photographs illustrate a story and that identified individuals are indeed involved with the story.

Repeating defamatory matter

The general rule in English law is that it is no defence in an action for defamation for a defendant to prove that he was only repeating the words of another. Accordingly, if producers wish to repeat potentially defamatory allegations, they must always seek legal advice. It may be that we will safely be able to repeat the allegations because, for example, the reporting is covered by privilege, but advice from the programme lawyer must be sought. On matters of public interest, the neutral reporting of disputes between third parties, where allegations are not adopted or endorsed, is likely to be defensible but again advice from the programme lawyer must be sought.