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Protecting your reputation: what’s the true cost?

Anyone following the Depp v Heard case or – and in the absence of court cameras – the so-called “Wagatha Christie” trial, would be forgiven for believing that only the rich and famous can defend their reputations in court. Whilst this is not the case, you would, however, be right to consider that taking someone to court for defamation is a prohibitively expensive exercise, which is beyond the reach of most mortals!

In the case of the Depp v Heard trial, Johnny Depp filed a $50 million defamation suit against his ex-wife, Amber Heard, over an op-ed she wrote for The Washington Post in 2018, in which she described surviving domestic violence, albeit without mentioning Depp by name. Similarly, Coleen Rooney (who is married to Derby County manager Wayne Rooney) is suing Rebekah Vardy (wife of the Leicester City striker, Jamie Vardy) for defamation after she publicly accused Ms Vardy of being the source of stories about her that were leaked to The Sun newspaper.

Defamation comes in a number of different guises. Slander involves comments about someone, which are not printed but are made verbally to other people or through an internet chat room; libel involves the written word, both on paper and the main social media platforms; and malicious falsehood can be made either verbally or in writing. The main purpose of these comments is that they involve false allegations made against you that would make right-thinking people generally think less of you. It is the damage to your reputation that you have a right to protect, so how can you defend your reputation and/or that of your business?

For individuals, the greatest risk lies within the boundaries of social media and the threat of being trolled. Getting on the wrong side of a press article can also lead to some unpleasant consequences.

For businesses, the main risk lies in malicious reviews, which may be made by people who have never even used that business, or who simply have an axe to grind. Such reviews can lead to a significant drop in profits and may threaten the ongoing commercial viablility of the business in question.

There is no legal aid available for defamation and most legal expenses insurance policies do not cover the cost of bringing or defending a claim. However, there are other options available that can mitigate the need to take the matter to Court:

1. The Independent Press Standards Organisation (IPSO) sets out a code of ethics, by which the Press should abide. If you believe that you have been defamed by the Press then you can make a complaint to the IPSO. It operates a cost arbitration scheme with an ability to award up to £60,000, along with some costs, at a fee of between £60 and £100. It can order the publication or a retraction and apology. Unlike the case of “Wagatha Christie”, the IPSO aims to resolve complaints within 90 days.

If members of the Press have written an article that wrongly accuses you of something which affects your reputation then this is a route well worth considering.

2. Most defamatory remarks nowadays tend to be made on social media, either by way of a malicious and innacurate review of a business or comments posted on mainstream social media platforms, either on pages managed by the business or belonging to the individual making the comments. Most platforms are governed by rules, which require users not to place defamatory remarks on their site.

If you are the wrong end of a malicious online campaign or simply a single misleading or untrue remark, which would make right-thinking people think less of you, use the platforms to lodge a complaint requesting the offending remark be taken down.

3. A further aspect of social media that causes some concern is the frequent case of the anonymous user (or ‘keyboard warrior’!) who persists in making adverse, unpleasant and/or untrue remarks. If you have been affected by this, it is possible to serve a notice upon the media platform requiring them to identify the user. They will follow the required procedure by asking the user to withdraw the comment or allow them to be named. If they fail to follow the procedure or properly respond, then the social media platform becomes liable to you for the remark, which of course leaves you with a party worth suing. Most cases are resolved at this early stage.

Whilst these routes do not give you your day in court, is that really such a bad thing? In the vast majority of cases, as businesses or individuals, it tends to be the case that what we really want is an apology and/or the offending comment to be removed so we can get on with our lives.

The final sting in the tail is that when we die, people can say what they like about us with no risk of being sued. Reputation is a privilege only of the living, or so it seems in the eyes of the law!

If you are looking for help and advice on litigation, dispute resolution, or any other matter, please don’t hesitate to contact Hugh Smith by calling 01482 325242 or email hugh.smith@andrewjackson.co.uk.

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