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Who Can be Sued?

Until recently, any person who caused or was responsible for the publication or broadcast of a defamatory statement could be sued by the claimant, for example a writer, producer, director, editor, interviewee, broadcaster, even, in the case of a book, the printers or the newsagents or booksellers. Now, however, claimants can only sue one or more of what are known as the "primary publishers" – the author, editor and commercial publisher of the defamatory publication. Secondary publishers, for example printers, websites or book sellers, may only be sued if it is not "reasonably practicable" for the claimant to sue a primary publisher. In the case of defamatory comments made by an interviewee in a television programme, the claimant might sue the interviewee making the remark (as author) and the production company and broadcaster (as commercial publishers), all primary publishers. Normally claimants sue one or more primary publishers with sufficient means to pay damages and costs.

There is a common misconception that because a libellous remark is made by a contributor or interviewee in a programme and not in commentary, the film-makers/broadcaster cannot be held legally responsible. This is incorrect. The broadcaster and film-makers are liable as commercial publishers of the libel.

If a claimant who sues for defamation is successful, he or she is likely to receive damages, in other words money, which provides both vindication and compensation for the damage caused by the defamatory (and untrue) statements published about him/her. The court may also impose a final injunction prohibiting the defendant from repeating the libel. Recently the courts have gained some further powers which are of benefit to successful claimants, enabling them to order a defendant to publish a summary of its judgment. Where a claimant has been successful against a publisher of a libel, the courts can now also order third parties, that is parties other than the losing defendant, to remove the defamatory material e.g. material published by someone on a third party's website.