Chris Ledgard recently looked at the laws surrounding language use, from libel to blasphemy. He was joined by Barristers Nicola Cain and Christina Michalos who explained the law surrounding
defamation. We live in a society governed by laws which limit what we can say and how and where, laws concerning privacy, defamation and incitement.
If you say anything that it likely to lower the reputation of a person in the eyes of someone else, that's when you start to get into trouble. UK courts have been very busy in recent years on defamation, for which it took the title, "libel capital of the world." The new Defamation Act 2013 aims to change this. Aiming to offer better protection yo indiviudals, journalists, scientists and academics who wish to publish and air opinions without the fear of being taken to court under action of libel.
Barrister Nicola Cain was asked, "What is defamation?" She responded:
"Defamation is the publication of words or images that tend to damage the reputation of another. It's about reputation and bringing that person into disrepute. Libel is any publication in any more permanent form. So that may be a broadsheet, a newspaper or anything more permanent.
Whereas slander relates only to transitory speech. So if we were having a conversation and I said something that was defamatory, that would be slanderous rather libellous. It has to be heard by somone else otherwise it is not a publication."On repeating the Bercow tweet:
"You can repeat it but I think it's important to make clear that that was a tweet that was found to be defamatory and that Lord McAlpine was found not to have anything to do with the allegations made and that was something the BBC apologised for."So you can discuss things that people have said which were wrong, so long as you make it clear that they were wrong.
"Because then although what you said was defamatory there is something called Bane and Antidote: You said something bad but you correct it and clarify the position so that ultimately you're left with something neutral. No one's going to come away thinking Lord McAlpine did anything wrong."But if you haven't corrected yourself there are a number of defences including, that the statement was true, honest comment, privilege, qualified privilege and responsible journalism. If you end up in a civil court for defamation you will be judged on whether what you've said lowers the reputation of a person in the eyes of what is described as a right-thinking individual.
Blasphemy was abolished in England and Wales in 2008 through the action of Liberal Democrat MP Dr Evan Harris who described the law as, "ancient, discriminatory, unnecessary, illiberal and non-human rights compliant."
Because the law applied only to Christians and in fact the Church of England representing Anglican views. So that was born out of events from 1989 when someone tried to get permission to have a summons presented against Salmon Rushdie in respect of his novel, The Satanic Verses. That wasn't allowed because Islam was not protected by the blasphemy laws.
The last time a case was brought was by the state against an individual in 1922 who compared Jesus with a circus clown and they were sentenced to hard labour. After that there was nothing until the case of Mary Whitehouse which was brought in the 1977 when the art teacher used the law to try and prosecute the editor of Gay News. The ground for her action was on the basis that the publication has published an explicit poem about Jesus. They were found guilty by a majority of 10-2 and every court in the land upheld it.
Chris Ledgard said of Northern Ireland: "So, thinking about Northern Ireland, if I wanted to read out the poem on this programme, it probably wouldn't be a very good idea?"
Nicola Cain said: "Not if we're broadcasting to Northern Ireland but I also think we'd probably be in breach of our guidelines as well."
The law that was abolished in England and Wales in 2008 still stands in Northern Ireland. The law was so old in Scotland that it fell into non-use and became unusable in modern times.