Defamation: The Most Costly Legal Challenge That’s Pickpocketing Journalists

An insight into defamation and how millions of pounds can be saved.

5 min readDec 16, 2020
Photo by Billion Photos from Shutterstock

Journalists face significant challenges daily, the most detrimental of all, defamation. This is categorically the most common and costly legal challenge, with the largest litigation-only law firm Stewarts stating how 2019 figures showed the highest volume of defamation claims in a decade. A catastrophic 22% rise in defamation claims was noted, following a 70% rise in 2018.

At what cost does this increase affect society?

Well, the consequences of defamation are lawsuits that come at a high price. Nobody wants to be broke, right?

This leads our train of thought to the true meaning of defamation, clarified by the renowned journalist who specialises in legal affairs, Frances Quinn.

“Defamation is an untrue statement which is spread to damage someone’s reputation.” (Quinn, 2018).

This is serious as no journalist is safe from the dangers of their reputation being damaged, no matter what territory of work they are based in.

So, how is defamation proven?

To be entitled for defamation, the claimant must adhere to these four conditions:

  1. The statement has significantly damaged their reputation.
  2. The statement caused or intended to cause serious harm to the claimant.
  3. The statement was overtly directed at the claimant.
  4. The statement was published in content that is accessible to the general public.

What are the two types of defamation?

  1. Libel: The more ‘permanent’ form — an untrue statement in written material such as newspaper/magazine articles, books or online published material.
  2. Slander: The more ‘transient’ form — an untrue statement in spoken material, such as speeches or physical expressions.

Libel Case, 2019.

The Guardian article by Michael McGowan

The renowned Australian actor Geoffrey Rush, known for his appearance in film classics The King’s Speech and Pirate’s of the Caribbean, has received nearly $3 million dollars in a legal payout. According to The Guardian, this was due to Sydney’s Daily Telegraph accusing Rush of acting inappropriately towards his co-star Eryn Jean Norvill, within the production of King Lear (or King Leer, as the article stated.) However, he denied the claims and the publisher lost it’s appeal, Rush winning not only a major court win but the largest payout to a single Australian person. This surpassed the Australian actress and comedian Rebel Wilson, whose whopping $4.5 million defamation payout was dropped to only $600,000 in 2018. The record $2.9 million that Rush received was split into two segments: $2 million for the past and future lost earnings and an extra $850,000 as compensation, instructed by Justice Michael Wigney. These damages were as a result of his impaired reputation, being presented as a predator that received significant abuse and losing his job, unsure to whether he will ever be able to work as an actor again.

Are all defamation cases successful?

Though many defamation cases result in colossal payouts, a case may still fail even if all of these factors are proved. It is particularly interesting to note that Quinn states:

“Even if all of these aspects are proved, a case may still fail. But, if you can prove what you say as partially true, you are covered by the defence of truth and cannot be sued for defamation, however serious the allegation.” (Quinn, 2018).

According to Eric Descheemaeker, the writer of Modern Law Review, 2015, a ‘defence’ is defined below:

“Defence is used to describe the elements required for the success of the action, whether they be defined positively, by their presence, or negatively, by their absence, which fall on the defendant to prove or disprove.”

These are three of the possible defences that can be used in defamation law suits:

  1. The Defence of Truth — the journalist contends that their statement was valid and not defamatory, but evidence is needed to prove this.
  2. Honest Comment — the journalist argues that their declaration was their honest opinion, which was written on a topic of public significance. This is most appropriate for opinion articles and reviews.
  3. Privilege — the journalist states that they have a right to report their supposed defamatory statement, even if it was defamatory. This is most applicable for journalists reporting inside courtrooms.

How can we prevent defamation?

Though defamation is not 100% avoidable, there are significant measures that can be taken in order to avoid any possible law suits. This is important to enable journalists to still feel somewhat ‘free’ with the pieces that they can write, reducing worry about the inconclusive line which draws between a ‘safe’ piece and an ‘unsafe’ piece. If you are a journalist and don’t want to be penniless, I suggest following the steps below.

  1. Check your facts! I cannot stress the importance of this, as journalists who don’t fact check are the catalyst for defamation law suits.
  2. Be alert and observative. Re-read your writing multiple times before publishing to check that there aren’t multiple ways your piece could be read, where your intended meaning could be misconstrued.
  3. Make other people read your work before publishing. This enables a wider scope of audience, meaning that they can read between the lines to see other angles and if anything could be misinterpreted.
  4. Use the language of judgement. When articulating a view, use opinion phrases such as ‘I think’ to make it clear that you are expressing your own observation.
  5. Don’t assume. If you don’t know, then don’t write it!

“Never try to destroy someone's life with a lie when yours could be destroyed by the truth” Lesson for Joan Wheeler.

If you’re interested in finding out more about defamation and the prevention of legal fees, look into the article ‘How Not to Be Sued for Libel’ by the extensively published journalist, Erik Sherman.

Do you think that money is the best substitute for the destruction of a celebrity’s reputation? If you agree, or don’t agree, I want to hear your views! Reply to this on Twitter, Instagram or Facebook.




Bournemouth Blogger | Social Media Addict | Sunset Chaser. Devoted to exploring journalism and the media.