We all know it was all over the news yesterday, don’t we? Among the chatter and noise, there were a few voices of reason – saying ‘shut up!’, ‘contempt of court‘. I responded to a couple. Is this going to be the case where the social media chatter and speculation and judgements cause a court case to collapse? Is that in anyone’s interests?
That’s all I plan to say on that matter. However in a quieter corner of social media land, I stumbled across an interesting debate on whether or not it is legal to ‘name and shame’ a company online when they’ve not paid their bills or allegedly given bad service. I joined that chatter as it interests me as a journalist – though, I’m no lawyer.
It was a timely debate because only last week such a message about a company in the Bath area was put on Twitter and I flagged up how damaging that can be with the social media outlets we all have access to these days. It’s easy for someone to vent their spleen over such things. Within seconds though, many Tweeters had defended this company and supported it. I felt it right that I re-tweet those comments to redress the balance. For me, the fact that that happened did re-dress the balance. So even if that company had that negative comment on its Twitterfeed on its website, for example, the positive comments would come in behind and cancel out the effect. If the company then went on to deal positively with that complaint (as it should any way), a negative can become a positive.
So back to the debate. Can you post statements online about a company’s bad service, non-payment or any matter about a company or organisation – would that make you subject to legal action? My answer is yes, you can put anything you like online about a company even if it’s defamatory. But like anything, beware the consequences. We do live in a democracy and we should have freedom of speech.
Defamation can be defended. If what you are saying is true and you have paperwork to support your claim, it’s fine. If it’s your experience and then you claim it’s true, ask yourself can the company defend itself against such claims? If it cannot, you are fine. Truth is the best defence – though there are others such as fair comment and public interest. These are harder to prove.
For me it’s about common sense.
Also beware of ‘malicious’ intent – it’s fine to say “I’m having a problem with such and such company, is anyone out there having problems too?’ but it’s not fine to get Twitter followers to continually malign that said company, especially if they have no direct experience of it. What I don’t know is if it’s fine for people to keep re-tweeting negative messages. I don’t think this has been examined in court yet.
People have a very funny view of defamation and libel. It’s the same with invasion of privacy. As journalists we often come across this. Don’t assume that just because you don’t want something said, that it won’t be expressed.
I once had a recruitment agency in the Swindon area which threatened to take me to court if I mentioned the fact that one of its former employees was taking it to an industrial tribunal. What nonsense! I almost shrieked with laughter.
Industrial tribunals are public events and the press are informed of them – any journalist can go along and report on proceedings. If someone lies in those proceedings (same with a court) as long as a company is approached for a right of reply, a journalist is free to print that lie with any response (contemporaneously). If the company doesn’t like it, that’s tough and completely irrelevant.
I recently had someone talk to me about an inquest and how could she stop a journalist attending as a family member had passed away suddenly and it was traumatic all round. I gently told her that she couldn’t. An inquest is a public event and journalists are informed. It’s often fifty/fifty whether they will turn up or not – but they are perfectly entitled to do so. In this case, as it happens, no journalist attended.
I had another case where I was producing a short film about a Cheltenham-based company which was clearly ripping people off for thousands of pounds. We contacted the boss – remember, you can only defame a person, not a company – and he responded with legal threats.
The day of transmission, he turned up at the studio with a lawyer and sat in a room with us outlining why we were defaming him, his fellow director and therefore his company. It was a long drawn-out meeting but we knew he had no real defence. The pivotal moment came when I said ‘you’re right we are defaming you’. He was silenced by this. I went on to say ‘but there are defences for doing so and one is ‘it’s true’. His solicitor nodded in agreement. The item was aired that night.
The funny thing was, about two months’ later, I had a call from this man’s solicitor. He wanted me to know – and laugh ironically – at the fact that he had been employed to defend this business man’s honour (and I use the term loosely) and had not been paid! Probably never was!