Defamation by innuendo case study
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Defamation by innuendo in the digital age
Defamation by innuendo refers to misleading implications in statements that can subtly damage a person's reputation without making direct accusations. The vast and rapid spread of information online, coupled with a tendency for sensationalism, makes such indirect defamation particularly harmful on the internet. Essentially, it's like whispering rumors, but on a global scale, where insinuations can be mistaken for truths.
Defamation by innuendo might sound like a complex legal term, but at its core, it's about misleading implications. Imagine reading an online article where, between the lines, a suggestion is made about someone's character or actions without directly stating it. Instead of outright saying "John stole money," an article might hint at it, perhaps by detailing John's lavish lifestyle immediately after discussing a company's missing funds. The reader is left to connect the dots, potentially arriving at a damaging, and false, conclusion about John. Now, why is this particularly problematic online? The internet is a vast space where information, accurate or otherwise, can spread like wildfire.
Moreover, online content often thrives on melodrama, drawing readers with tantalising hints and suggestions. As a result, defamation by innuendo can easily slip into articles, social media posts, or comments, subtly tarnishing reputations without making explicit accusations. It's a form of whispering behind someone's back, only amplified to a global audience. Within today's extensive online universe, where nuances can be lost and implications can carry the weight of direct statements, understanding and guarding against defamation by innuendo becomes paramount.
Our client was a former police detective who later ran a private investigation company. In 2012, whilst operating his private company, he was arrested by the police on suspicion of making corrupt payments to a police officer, but no charges were brought against him because due to lack of evidence relating his activity to means of corruption.
3 years post-investigation, the police provided information to HMRC suggesting that our client engaged in tax evasion in connection with the same transaction for which he was previously under police investigation.
In 2015 HMRC opened a tax investigation into our client’s affairs. At an initial meeting, HMRC asked for our client to provide bank statements to review. They failed to specify the specific tax loss they had discovered, which would have prompted the request.
HMRC concluded that our client had to pay an additional income tax of just over £40,000 for that tax year, claiming he had been careless with his HMRC tax reporting. Our client appealed, arguing that the investigation was not lawfully opened. HMRC in turn reduced the assessed amount to just over £30,000. The tribunal turned down our client’s appeal and the decision, which was possibly only significant to those engaged in accountancy was reported and published online. Our client complained about two articles.
The first, was a publication by a website called IntelligenceOnline.com, which was operating from France. The article stated that our client was “fined by the tax office” because he intentionally failed to pay his taxes. A similar article was posted on another website called AccountingWeb.com. Both articles also referred to our client’s arrest 8 years earlier.
This part of the article attempted to bolster the notion that our client is inclined towards dishonest behaviour. Whilst most of the reporting in both articles was factual, they both also included an underlying defamatory tone.
Our expert defamation lawyers delved into the judgement of nearly 50 pages of the appeal tribunal. They found it clear that at no time was our client fined by the HMRC. As a matter of fact, our client was required to pay the difference between his own tax assessment and the assessment carried out by HMRC.
He was not fined - A fine implies wrongdoing and in some case an element of dishonestly. This was not the case here. The word “fine” therefore was highly misleading and by innuendo, together with other parts o the articles, implies that our client was in fact dishonest. It became evident that both articles were defamatory. It wasn’t so much for the false claim that he had been fined, but for this suggestion together with the innuendo around it.
Defamation by innuendo is well established under English defamation law. What matters most under English law, when it comes to defamation, is the meaning that is attributed, to a word, a sentence, or an article, by a reasonable reader rather than the dictionary meaning of any particular word. It follows that under English law, defamation could be created by an innuendo, even if there is no specific defamatory word or phrase included in the publication.
The main argument between the parties in defamation cases is often what meaning should be attributed to a word or a sentence. In addition, an individual must also show that a defamatory statement is likely to cause them serious reputational harm. It appeared to our defamation lawyers, that there were defamatory attributions in both articles and that were likely to cause our client serious reputational harm.
Dealing with defamation by innuendo on websites is not always easy. Our initial advice to our client was to send letters before legal action in defamation to the operators of both websites. A threat of legal action could’ve given them each a serious incentive to immediately delete the articles from their website and perhaps to provide our client with a letter of apology stating the information that they published was incorrect.
Our lawyers drafted letter of claims to both IntelligenceOnline.com and AccountingWeb.com highlighting the elements of their articles which were defamatory.
Lawyers for AccountingWeb.com agreed to negotiate the content of the article on the basis that the publication was not "fair" or "accurate". Our client was pleased with the article to be amended with factual reporting only. The amendments included changes to the article, which was in fact the main issue which bothered our client.
IntelligenceOnline.com initially responded to say that it would not remove the article or amend it because, under French Law, our client only had 3 months from the date of publication to bring any claim. This time hadessentially lapsed, therefore, the claim was time barred.
Our lawyers responded to explain why IntelligenceOnline.com would be subject to the jurisdiction of the English Courts, where the limitation period to bring a claim is 12 months from when the defamatory content is fist published. Following negotiations, the editor eventually agreed to amend part of the article and its headline which was a good result as these were the most defamatory part of the publication.
Following these amendments, our lawyers also requested that Google delists both articles from search results on the basis that they contained information about our client which was private and therefore irrelevant. Google agreed to delist the articles from searches for our client’s name.
The case of our former police detective client brought to the forefront several intriguing elements regarding defamation on the internet, each of which has significant implications for how one should approach such matters.
The Subtlety of Defamation: At the heart of this case was the idea of defamation by innuendo. The digital realm often sees assertions and insinuations presented as fact. On initial inspection, certain articles might not blatantly appear as defamatory; however, as evidenced in this situation, the devil is often in the details.
One cannot merely rely on the apparent meaning of words or phrases but must dig deeper to understand the undertones, implications, and larger narrative the publication attempts to create. The use of the term "fine," for example, implied a certain degree of culpability on our client’s part which was absent in reality.
A Practical Approach to Online Defamation: When confronted with such defamatory content online, the initial reaction might be to litigate. However, it's crucial to adopt a pragmatic viewpoint. Our strategy in this case was to first extend an opportunity for both platforms to rectify their misleading content, a move which in the long run can save significant time, money, and reputational damage.
While the law is an essential tool, one should not be overly litigious but should instead look for efficient and effective solutions that serve the client's best interest.
Creativity and Negotiation Over Litigation: The process of negotiation and creative problem solving came to the fore with IntelligenceOnline.com. While the publication attempted to hide behind the protective veil of French Law, we engaged them in dialogue, elucidating the applicable jurisdictional nuances.
The outcome was favourable, demonstrating that with the right strategy, negotiation can produce results just as, if not more, satisfactory than full-blown litigation. This approach not only reduced potential costs for our client but also led to more certain and timely results.
In conclusion, the issue of online defamation encapsulates a wave of challenges regarding reputation management. In navigating this intricate terrain, it's crucial to approach situations with a discerning eye, a willingness to negotiate, and the wisdom to choose battles wisely. The case of our client underscores the importance of not only understanding the nuances of defamation law but also employing strategies that are both pragmatic and effective.