Defamation of Groups
Defamation law is the law which defends the reputation of individuals. A group of people will not normally have a reputation as such, and so cannot normally be defamed. What constitutes an individual, however, is not always quite so obvious. What follows is a simple versions of the rules:
- Defamation protects living individuals only. The right to defend your reputation dies with you. Try counting the number of people who felt free to criticise Robert Maxwell after his death, rather than before.
- A defamation which is stated so widely as to apply to a broad group, defames neither that group as a whole, nor any individual within it. However, the law of innuendo might be applied in some contexts.
- An identified group of individuals can be defamed. For example, to say of a football team that some of them 'are drunken sots', is to defame each and every member of the team - even if the author wanted only to refer to one or two of them. He does not differentiate between them, neither will his audience, and neither will the judge. When a group becomes sufficiently diffuse is a question for each particular occasion, but a helpful starter test is whether they can each be named.
- Politicians seem to be coming into a class of their own. Recent developments suggest that, for example a political party cannot sue to protect its good name, nor can a local authority (although individuals forming part of the Local Authority may do), and last but not least, a politician may find that some defences are more easily available to a defendant than others (Reynolds v Times Newspapers Ltd et al CA Times 09-Jul-98).
- A defence of qualified privilege applies in defamation proceedings reporting acts of public officials where there appears to be a duty to publish, a proper public interest in hearing the allegations and proper reporting procedures (even though allegations false) See also the Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms 1953 Cmd 8969).
- A limited company can sue only insofar as the alleged defamation relates in some way to its trading activities. It does not have a personal reputation to defend, but only one as a trader.
This is by no means a full explanation of the law in this area.