The Law of Defamation
The law of defamation is notoriously complex. Although it is not easy to summarize its rules in a few pages, a short statement of English libel law is necessary in order to appreciate its impact on the various branches of the media which we describe in the following chapters. Exposition of these principles is particularly difficult at the time of writing (the summer of 1996), as some aspects of the law have recently been amended by the Defamation Act 1996. Some of the reforms contained in this measure are significant, particularly in the context of defamation procedure; they are referred to in this Chapter at the appropriate point. But they do not alter the main principles of the substantive law of libel. This Chapter also explains how the law and procedure in Scotland differ from those in England.
Obviously defamation law does not only affect newspapers, broadcasters, and publishers and the plaintiffs who sue them. Individuals, corporations, and partnerships may also be sued, if they publish a defamatory allegation (or in the case of a corporate defendant authorize its publication). This is illustrated by one of the most famous actions in the last decade, that brought by Lord Aldington against the author and distributor of a leaflet falsely accusing him of handing over prisoners of war to the Russians in the knowledge that this would lead to their death. This was in no sense a media case. But the vast majority of causes célèbres in defamation law do involve media defendants; plaintiffs naturally prefer to bring an action against them as well as, or instead of, an