The common sense of libel

The common sense of libel
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First Published: Tue, May 04 2010. 01 15 AM IST

V.R. Narayanaswami is a former professor of English, and has written several books and articles on the usage of the language. He looks at the peculiarities of business and popular English usage in his
V.R. Narayanaswami is a former professor of English, and has written several books and articles on the usage of the language. He looks at the peculiarities of business and popular English usage in his
Updated: Wed, May 26 2010. 12 39 PM IST
The lawyer was awakened from his sleep by noises from his garden. He looked out and saw a man climbing the fence. “Stop, alleged thief!” he shouted.
Of late, news reports in print carry the words “alleged” and “allegedly” with increasing frequency. By this means mediapersons seek protection against libel suits. Libel can be defined as a publication in writing, print, picture or effigy that exposes a person to ridicule, contempt or obloquy.
V.R. Narayanaswami is a former professor of English, and has written several books and articles on the usage of the language. He looks at the peculiarities of business and popular English usage in his fortnightly column.
The word comes from Latin libellus, “little book”, derived from liber, “book”. In the 14th century, the word meant the charges made in writing by a plaintiff in a civil or criminal case. By the mid-16th century, it meant a leaflet that assails a person’s character.
Professional writers need to be aware of what constitutes libel. A publication should satisfy certain criteria to be considered libel. First, the writing should injure someone’s reputation or expose someone to ridicule. Second, it should be about some identifiable people. The person may be named or be identified from the context. Third, the material must be published or communicated to others. The remarks you write in your diary will not be libel if no one reads it.
The law of libel has changed substantially over the decades. The rulings of the US Supreme Court have influenced libel suit proceedings in many parts of the world. Before the reform of libel legislation began, the complainant had the upper hand, and the writers of the libellous material were required to prove their innocence.
A landmark in the history of libel legislation is the New York Times Co. v. Sullivan case. Commissioner L.B. Sullivan felt that the Montgomery, Alabama, police were inaccurately criticized in an advertisement in the paper and filed a defamation suit. The Alabama court awarded him $500,000 as damages.
The Supreme Court reversed the ruling. The test of whether a statement was libellous ought to be whether it was inspired by malice. The onus of proving malice was now on the complainant, who should present “clear and convincing evidence” to demonstrate that “the statement was made with knowledge that it was false or with reckless disregard of whether it was false or not”.
The most recent court ruling on libel relates to the case of a British science writer, Simon Singh. He faced a suit for questioning the claim made by a group of chiropractors that their treatment could bring relief in childhood diseases. Singh used strong words in questioning such claims, and the group filed a libel suit. A lower court said Singh had to prove his statements were accurate. Early this month, the appellate court reversed this ruling, and said that Singh could now plead that what he wrote was his honestly held opinion and not a statement of fact to be proved.
The Supreme Court of India has followed in the footsteps of the US courts in safeguarding freedom of the media from libel challenges by public officials. Justice Jeevan Reddy, in his ruling on the Nakkeeran case, decided that public officials cannot seek the remedy of action for damages with respect to the discharge of their official duties. The official should establish that the publisher or defendant knew that the statement was false and acted with “reckless disregard for truth”. The defendant in such a case can respond by proving that he made a reasonable verification of the facts before publishing.
The article in a British Council newsletter that carried a report on the Nakkeeran case had the title: “Public interest journalism: the dying defamation threat”. That should show which way the wind is blowing.
Comments are welcome at otherviews@livemint.com
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First Published: Tue, May 04 2010. 01 15 AM IST