What is slander, libel and malicious falsehood? law of defamation book

What you need to know about defamation

Defamation falls into 3 main categories: libel, slander and malicious falsehood. Here we look at the meaning of defamation and changes to UK defamation law.

Any business which publishes content online must be careful about what it says. There are areas of defamation which you could stray into if you’re not wary. Here’s a quick guide about what to look out for.

Types of defamation

Defamation falls into three main categories: libel, slander, and malicious falsehood. There are a few key differences.

Libel Defamation

Libel regards defamation causing serious harm to the individual or company. It must be published in a permanent form, including written, published online, or spoken on TV or stage.

Slander Defamation

Slander is similar to libel, but only exists in the transient form of the spoken word.

Malicious falsehood

Malicious falsehood doesn’t necessarily have to be defamatory, but is something untrue which causes damage. For example, publishing that a doctor was retired when they were not would cause them to lose business, and is therefore malicious falsehood.

How you can accidentally defame someone

It might seem difficult to publish something which would cause serious harm, or would be considered maliciously false. However, it’s easier than you might think.

If you’re an author, editor or publisher (this includes advertisers and agencies), then you should know the risks.

  • In a libel or defamation case, the person suing only has to prove that the allegations have been published, refer to them, and have caused harm. The burden of proving the truth of the statement is on the defendant, so don’t publish anything you can’t prove is true
  • Even if you’re only repeating a claim from a legitimate source, you’re still responsible for what you say. If a paper is sued for libel on something you’ve repeated, you could also be sued
  • Malicious falsehood can be proven if there is an improper motive. If you’re gaining by what you say, you need to be careful you know that it’s true!

In the case of malicious falsehood, if you do realise you’ve made a mistake, quickly publishing a retraction and apology is a good approach. Malice is difficult to prove, especially if you’ve since retracted the statement.

What about recent defamation law changes?

Changes to the Defamation Act in 2013 have brought about some shifts in the law, including the ‘serious harm’ threshold. Where Britain was once seen as a light touch for defamation cases, it’s now much harder to prove you were defamed. This should stop libel tourism in the UK, and help freedom of speech.

However, it has also changed things for those publishing online, with the law giving power to those defamed to speak directly to the poster of any statements, which could be you. The process is aimed at helping potential victims of defamation online, by allowing them to resolve the dispute in person.

To cover the potential costs of protracted legal proceedings there is professional indemnity insurance. It insures your business against the costs of being sued for defamation, as well as other claims that could damage your business.

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Last Updated: 14 Dec 2015