It has been a disastrous month for Manchester United manager Louis Van Gaal, who has recently ‘cracked under the pressure’ of negative press after going seven games without victory, crashing out of the Champion’s League and slipping from 1st to 6th in the Premier League. His frustration came to a head in a pre-boxing day match press conference, calling out journalists on their continual bad press surrounding his performance. He called for an apology from the media, claiming he didn’t want to speak to them under the circumstances, then left after five minutes. Watch the full press conference here-
Of course, it did not take journalists long to hit back at Van Gaal. The Christmas Eve papers were crawling with insults, comments and jibes at the manager, mostly going against the festive spirit.
Here are a couple of examples include this back page story from leading tabloid The Sun:
The Mirror also got involved:
The Guardian managed a Christmas jibe too:
Whereas The Daily Telegraph gave a more honest depiction of the press conference:
Although journalists of all kinds got involved with the story, it was the tabloid’s which focused on the negativity. According to an article on hosbeg.com, tabloid newspapers are more likely to contain scandalous stories about celebrities and use sensational language in a colloquial way. Because the majority of tabloid newspapers have a readership made up of the working class, a colourful and exaggerated tone ensure that readers are more engaged in the story than a typical broadsheet would be. This can incite many legal issues for journalists, one of the most common being The Defamation Act and potentially libellous content.
The Defamation Act 2013 says that a statement is not defamatory unless it has caused or is likely to cause serious harm to the reputation of the claimant. Defamation can include comments that make the general public think less of a claimant as a person, makes the claimant the object of public ridicule or makes people think that they cannot do their job properly. When published in permanent form, such as in print or on the web, a defamatory statement becomes libel. In order to make a successful claim in libel, a claimant must be able to prove that the comments that were made have damaged them in some way, that the statements were not fair comment and that the comments made against them were not in the public interest.
Claimants who are looking to sue a journalist for libel must do so within a year of the material being published, after this time, you cannot file a law suit. Also, it is impossible to libel the dead, as in theory, they no longer have a reputation to be harmed.
Returning to the story from The Sun about Van Gaal, although it may look like the comments made were libellous, he would have little chance if trying to sue them under the defamation act. There are plenty of defences that journalists can use against the claimant to prove that their content was not libellous, and using the example story from The Sun, I will demonstrate how they may have been explained.
If the journalist can prove that the defamatory statement made is the truth, a claim will not be passed. If there is more than one statement made in a claim, but not all of the statements can be proved to be true, the defence will not fail if the false accusations can be proved to have had little impact on the claimant’s reputation. In the story from The Sun, the truth defence would stand, as the majority of their claims about Van Gaal can be proved as the truth.
Honest opinion defence
The honest opinion defence generally covers opinion and review pieces, however it can be used by a journalist if they can prove that the defamatory statements they made could be an opinion held by an honest person. If the defendant meets the conditions including- being able to prove the statement was an opinion, the statement was formed on an opinion and that the statement could be the opinion of an honest person at the time of publishing- the defence would stand. However if a claimant can prove that the defendant does not hold that opinion, the defence will fail, unless the defendant can show that the opinion was not their own, but formed by another (“the author”). The journalist who apologised to Van Gaal for ‘boring his fans to tears’ could use the honest opinion defence to defend his case, as it may be his personal opinion of the manager.
Other defences for libel include ‘the publication on a matter of public interest’. For this defence to succeed, the defendant must prove that the statement was, or former part of, a statement on a matter of public interest or reasonably believe that it is in the interest of the public to publish the defamatory information. The ‘Operators of websites’ defence can also be used against libel cases, where the defendant would need to prove that it was not the operator which posted the statement on the website. The defence can be defeated if the claimant can show that it isn’t possible to identify the person who made the defamatory statement or if the claimant gave the website a notice of complaint in relation to the statement and the operator failed to respond with provision. The Defamation Act also protects journalists by privilege, which allows them to report fairly and accurately on public interest events such as court cases, Parliamentary debates, public meetings, council meetings and police statements.
If the defence of the journalist does not stand and the claimant wins, they are entitled to an award of damages. Although there is no fixed rate of damages, there are factors that determine how much a claimant is given. Circumstances include the seriousness of the defamatory statement, the size and influence of the publications circulation, whether or not the claimant has suffered financial loss, if the claimant has suffered actual injury to reputation, the behaviour and conduct of the defendant and if there is an element of truth to the defamatory statement or not.
Although it may sound like a light hearted joke at the expense of a celebrity, many tabloid newspapers have been under fire for libel and defamation in the last few years. This has caused journalists to check their facts more rigorously before publishing a story, adapt their writing style to a more tongue in cheek and innuendo-esc tone and become more cautious when making claims about public figures. It doesn’t seem like Louis Van Gaal will sue for libel, but if the media continue the way they have been going with him, they could find themselves in hot water soon enough.