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Ivor the Dragon and the Libel Claims

I’m a dragon, so I don’t always understand what happens in the human world. Obviously since I’m also a lawyer I make sure I follow the news regarding the legal world. It is so different from the common world. A young human would probably think we solicitors speak a foreign language. Well, I do speak several languages – Welsh, French and Old Silurian among them - but when I do legal things I speak in English. Negligence, liability or injury claim are some of the words that can have a meaning in proper English but have a whole lot of signification in Legal English.

Lately I have heard the word libel a lot. With the Newsnight debacle and investigations into alleged child abuse all sorts of accusations have been thrown around online and in the media. Now as always, don’t take the words of a humble dragon as legal advice – I am just going to talk in general terms and the issues in any specific case or situation are always very complicated.

Power of the words

An injury can be much more than physical. Harm can come to your body, to your mind but also to your work or to your reputation. Libel concerns the latter. A legal dictionary, libel means “to publish in print (including pictures), writing or broadcast through radio, television or film, an untruth about another which will do harm to that person or his/her reputation, by tending to bring the target into ridicule, hatred, scorn or contempt of others. Libel is the written or broadcast form of defamation”.

Basically, “slander” is spoken defamation whereas “libel” is written.

What a lot of people don’t realise is that what you say on Twitter or Facebook can be libel. Most people treat social media like banter down the pub. But what you say online can have serious consequences. Something can be shared and retweeted to the world. When you post online, you are a publisher and you have to consider your legal responsibilities. Even retweeting something written by someone else could make you liable. When we post online, we are all publishers.

You must always be very careful when you accuse someone of doing something publicly. You are obviously allowed to have an opinion (such as “I don’t like Ivor the Dragon” – though I hope you do like me!), but you must be careful when you give it to make sure everyone knows it is your opinion and not a sure fact.

On the other hand, if you have proof on someone’s wrongdoing (such as “Ivor stole some leeks”) you need to go to the law and once justice has been served only then can you talk about it publicly without risking a lawsuit. In our country, everyone is innocent until proven guilty. Even if they are guilty, until a judge says so people are considered innocent so you cannot accuse them in public. Indeed if you say someone is a criminal of some sort, since he/she is deemed innocent you are the one who is guilty, you are guilty of defamation. It can seem unfair, sure, but if the person is indeed innocent you really are the one hurting them.

There isn’t always a need to give a name if it is easy to guess who you are talking about. If you accuse a dragon of doing something wrong and I am the only one around, well, people will obviously assume you are talking about me. If you make an honest mistake then you can apologise and that’s different. But if you intentionally said something bad about me on a TV show for instance, then that can be libel.

Since such an accusation is on the media – or in a movie – it reaches a whole lot of people so the harm is wider than, say, you just telling your neighbours. If you were the victim of an accusation you wouldn’t like every soul in the country to know about it. If someone hears that you are accused of being a thief for instance, it can make it difficult for you to find a job in your town – or you may lose your current job – and you may have, in a worst case scenario, to leave the city you live in if you want to find employment and to leave the accusations behind. Once damage has been done there is only so much we can do.

On a larger scale, if the whole country hears on the radio that you are a thief or murderer or other criminal, where can you hide from it? Whether you are famous or not accusations damage your reputation. You may have given hundreds of pounds to charities like Children in Need every year, fundraised, helped the poor and done many good deeds, but one stain on your reputation seems to erase all your good deeds. Even if it’s later proved that you are not a thief, people will still keep somewhere in their minds that you have been accused. If you are not famous it will cease hopefully soon enough because people who don’t know you will forget you. If you are famous it can be even more damaging to your reputation because people already know your name so it is harder to forget.

There are also cases of Internet “trolls”. The name “troll” was originally given to people who wrote deliberately provocative Internet forum posts and blog comments to get a reaction for a laugh. But it is now used to mean people who use the seeming anonymity of the Internet to harass and bully others. In recent cases, victims have won the right to force social networks and Internet service providers (ISPs) to reveal the real-life identities of trolls.

When our laws were first written centuries ago, they didn’t take into account the use of the Internet and of social media but grey areas are filled by judge rulings every day. So don’t be an Internet troll or social media libeller - think before you tweet!