Don't Get Sued for Gossip!
While studying media law is very tedious for radio DJs, it's probably the most important thing a radio presenter has to learn.
In this post, we'll learn about defamation, libel and slander. If you guide yourself by these basic rules, you'll be ok. Just to note, I'll be repeating myself throughout this blog. My goal is to drill this information into your head.
You need to understand the basics of defamation. If you don't, the chances are high that you'll open your mouth, say the wrong thing and get sued. Your station can also get sued as well. Be careful!
Throughout this blog, I will repeat the mantra below.
"If you 'accuse' someone of something that's NOT TRUE, you could get into legal and financial trouble."
Disclaimer: UK Media Law
While this post deals with UK law, it’s still worth learning this information. The UK has some of the strictest libel laws in the world. If you guide yourself by UK libel laws, the chances of you being sued for defamation will be slim.
Forewarned is forearmed.
The Three Terms Most Used
Defamation, libel and slander.
What Is Defamation?
Defamation is the law's way of protecting 'reputation.' It’s merely the posh word for 'ruining someone’s credibility or ruining their reputation.' Try and think of defamation this way. It makes it easier to understand.
Defamation = the posh word for ruining someone's 'reputation.'
Media law books define defamation as “exposing another individual to hatred, ridicule or contempt. The written statement/spoken word has caused the individual to be shunned or avoided.”
The Two Forms of Defamation
Defamation comes in two forms. You can 'defame' someone by either libel or by slander.
Defamation = Libel and Slander
Libel and slander are pretty similar. One is for the written (or broadcast) word, and one is for the spoken word (in public). However, both terms deal with affecting someone's 'reputation.'
Think of defamation (this could be libel or slander) as affecting someone's 'reputation.'
Slander is where I ruin your 'reputation' by the spoken word in public. Someone overhears me saying: “David is a thief, and he steals money”. The person who heard my statement now believes David is a thief.
Is It True?
If my statement is; however, false, I have now ruined David’s reputation. People may not do business with David because of what I've said. If what I've said has ruined David's reputation, he can now sue me for slander. If I can't prove what I said (under UK law), then I will lose the law case (and a lot of money.)
Libel: This Is What Radio Presenters Need
Libel is very similar to slander. Only this time, libel is where I ruin your 'reputation' by the written word or by the broadcast word. Libel incorporates websites, forums, emails, TV, and radio shows etc. (as they are a form of permanent record).
Watch What You Say and Write
Don't accuse anyone or any company etc. of anything you can't prove. Don't say or write anything (on social media) that can ruin the 'reputation' of a person/company etc. There have been numerous cases of people being sued for libel in the UK for tweeting 'opinions.'
You say on your radio show: “Tracey's website is a scam”.
Ok, we won’t do business with Tracey.
Your Up and Coming Law Case
Tracey now sues you for libel (the statement was made on the radio). Your comment has lowered the individual (Tracey) in the estimation of “right thinking people” (the audience or people who may do business with Tracey). Your written statement/spoken word has now affected Tracey's business, trade, office or profession.
Tracey is stealing money. Don’t do business with her. Now, it's time for you to get a lawyer. Under UK law, it's down to YOU to prove your statement is TRUE in a court of law.
Other Things You Can't Say
Tracey is a fraud....
Tracey is a liar....
Tracey is a cheat etc.
Tracey smells. This is ok.
If I say, “David's business lies to its customers.” I could be sued by David if this statement is NOT TRUE. Why? Well, these words could cause David's 'reputation' harm.
I'll explain again....
If David is a businessman (or business), people may not want to do business with him after hearing these words. Simply put; they may not trust him now. And if they don't trust him, then his reputation has been ruined.
If your statement is NOT TRUE and affects 'reputation', you can be sued for libel.
I'll say it again....
If you call someone (or a company) a thief, a fraud, a liar etc. on social media, on a website, the radio or TV etc. and you can't prove your statement, you could get sued for a lot of money.
If you CAN'T prove this statement, then this = a law case.
THINK BEFORE YOU STINK
Before you open your mouth or tweet your comment, THINK!
Will the 'statement' affect someone's 'reputation?'
IF IN DOUBT, CUT IT OUT!
Guests and Libel
Even if you haven’t personally libelled someone, you can still get sued for what was said on your show. This is because your guest has committed libel and you’ve missed it.
Always monitor what your guests say as well.
Defaming a Company
You can defame a company too. If you say that Brand X Cola doesn’t pay their staff wages, they can sue you for ruining their reputation. Even if you change the brand name, but their brand is still identifiable by other means, you will still get sued.
Technically you could also get sued for your Tweets or Facebook posts. Many people in the UK have been sued for what they've posted on social media.
Watch what you post on social media.
Are your social media posts ruining someone’s reputation? If they are, you could get sued.
Yeah but It's on the Internet....
Not everything on the internet is true. Just because someone has retweeted an allegation doesn't mean it's true. If in doubt, cut it out.
The Complicated Bit and Reputation
If you said Britain’s most violent criminal Charles Bronson (Google him) doesn’t pay his UK TV licence, then this is unlikely to be defamation (libel).
Why is this?
Well, his 'reputation' is unlikely to be ruined by this statement. He is, after all, a violent prisoner. However, if I say the head of the BBC doesn’t pay his TV licence, then this is likely to be defamation.
Well, why is this?
The statement against the head of the BBC will definitely affect their ‘reputation’. The BBC by law makes everyone buy a TV licence. Imagine the scandal if the head of the BBC doesn’t have a TV licence. They will sue you for damaging their reputation. And if a court of law believes that your statement has damaged their reputation, then you will be in big trouble. And it’s not just you that will be sued. Your station/publication may also be sued. Believe me; they won’t be happy about that. You may also be looking for a new job if that happens.
NEVER REPEAT A LIBELLOUS ALLEGATION
Anyone who repeats a libellous allegation can also be sued. This is important to understand.
Someone on Twitter makes a comment that later on is found to be libellous. In other words, their comment has damaged the reputation of an individual or a company. As part of your radio show, you; however, have read out the libellous tweet. Not only will you be “repeating the libellous comment” (which means you could be sued) but the station that you’re representing could also be sued.
Repeating allegations without making sure they are true is a good way to get yourself knee deep in litigation.
IF IN DOUBT, CUT IT OUT
Just because something has been written in a national newspaper or it’s online, doesn’t mean it’s always safe to use. Newspapers have got it wrong in the past and they've been sued many times. Check your sources before you make the statement.
Information on the Internet
Hearing or seeing something written somewhere else doesn't make it true. Just because it’s on the internet DOES NOT make it TRUE.
To protect yourself is relatively easy. Don't make anything up. Check your sources and then check again. If two or more official “news agencies” (e.g. the BBC, Reuters, etc.) are covering the same story, then it’s likely to be safe.
If in doubt, CUT IT OUT!
If your guest makes a libellous statement, you must immediately distance yourself and the station from the offending comment. Doing this straightaway will limit the potential damage. It may even result in the case not going to court if the person trusts you have acted promptly to limit the damage.
What to Do When Your Guest Libels Someone
If you think your guest’s comment is libellous, then immediately ask your guest to retract their comment. Something like: “I’m afraid we can’t say that on air Mr X, will you please retract that statement." Next, quickly round up the interview. We do this because we don’t want our guest to repeat their comment. Make no mention of the libellous comment and ensure that you and your station do not seem to agree with the comment. Apologize on behalf of the station (without repeating the comment) and then move on. If it's a phone in and someone says something libellous, cut them off straight away, distance yourself and the station from the comment and move on.
Defences to Libel
'Justification' or in Other Words: The Truth
If you can prove that the statement is true, and you have evidence which you can bring to a court of law to show that X did do Y, then you will be safe.
The defence of fair comment allows an honest person to express an opinion even if it's “prejudiced, exaggerated or obstinate”. This can be a tricky defence so tread carefully. For example, a music review or a film review can be opinionated and negative without falling foul of the law.
Your comment must be about a topic in the public interest.
It must be based on truthful facts.
It must be viewed as a comment and not as a statement of fact.
If your comment seems like a statement of fact and it does affect someone's reputation, it could get you sued. So, be careful.
If in doubt, cut it out.
Another defence to libel is death. You’re OK if the person you are talking about is dead. However, check this law in your own country.
Apart from that, always tread carefully. THINK FIRST before you open your mouth. It might just save you a lot of money.
For more on defamation check out the BBC Editorial Guidelines online.
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Ashley Cowan runs the Online Radio School where he tutors in radio presenting and media interviewing techniques. He was a BBC World Service, Radio studio manager for nine years. He was also the station manager for Radio Kings, the hospital radio station for Kings College Hospital. Other crimes include being the training manager for K2K Radio & Whitechapel AM. Sometimes he even records The Economist Audio Magazine on random Thursdays.
As a radio presenter, he's hosted radio shows on three FM stations. That was back in the day when FM radio was a big deal. The poor radio stations that had to put up with his brand of terrible comedy were: Radio DÅB, FLR 107.3 FM, and City FM. Radio DÅB had 100,000 listeners! Woo!
When he's not writing about himself in the third person, then he was also a community radio DJ at Radio Kings, TGR Sound, Sydenham Radio, and Croydon Radio.
He once did production work for Total Rock.com. That was a fun station with a cool owner and a great broadcast team! Brown fizzy water often accompanied the broadcasts!
In his spare time, he's London Irish (so he likes a beer). He's recently created an online "Fingerpicking for Guitar" course. There he teaches the art of fingerpicking for... erm...guitar. Students can learn twenty different fingerpicking styles for their chords.
is an ex BBC, radio studio manager, and the ex manager of Radio Kings, the hospital radio station for King's College Hospital. He's presented on three FM stations and waaay too many community stations.