libel, defamation and privacy


libel, defamation and privacy
   Defamation (collectively, libel and slander) actions to protect reputations often provoke incessant tabloid newspaper interest, despite the fact that it is often these newspapers who are the defendants in such actions. In a demonstration of the increasingly litigious nature of the British, such actions are indicative of the continual struggle to erect barriers between the ‘public’ and the ‘private’ personality, and question the limits of concepts such as ‘celebrity’ status. In an era where there appears to be an insatiable desire to discover minutiae of detail concerning people in the public eye, there has been widespread debate concerning how far a person’s private life can be interrogated. With no recognizable legal concept of a right to privacy, those suffering such an interrogation have little recourse to control the actions of writers and photographers. The problem has become even more pronounced as the tabloid press, in their worst excesses, try to achieve scoops at any cost; and their jobs are often made easier by the ready availability of ‘high-tech’ means of obtaining information. It is unsurprising that when serious mistakes are made in stories, the response of victims is often to sue for damage to their reputations. High-profile defamation cases have been brought by a number of television and sporting personalities such as Elton John and Ian Botham. Ironically, John’s success against the Sun newspaper allowed it to create a front-page story featuring its apology to the singer. Alongside this legal and media ‘circus’, there has been a long-standing debate regarding the extent of damages awarded by juries; unlike most civil actions, libel trials are generally still heard by juries. Throughout the late 1980s and early 1990s, initial large awards such as one million pounds to Elton John contributed to the Court of Appeal indicating that judges ought to advise juries on the appropriate level of compensation. The tightening of control was extended when the Court of Appeal was itself given power to substitute its own award when the original is deemed excessive. The debate over the right to personal privacy has largely been in response to revelations concerning the personal lives of the Royal family, particularly the Duchess of York. This has led to a number of calls for legislation in this area, and has brought into sharp focus the divergence of the UK from other jurisdictions such as France.
   See also: democracy; privacy
   Further reading
    Duncan, C. (1978) Defamation, London: Butterworth.
   GUY OSBORN
   STEVE GREENFIELD

Encyclopedia of contemporary British culture . . 2014.

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