Fake news? Striking back against the libel scammers

26th January 2021 Media Law

Thanks to social media, we live in an age of instant comment.

Individuals who might not previously have had a platform for their news and views can now quickly air them with hundreds of million regular users of the most popular platforms and many millions more who contribute to online review sites and forums.

Whilst much of the output is a mix of the factual, the fun and the mildly opinionated, other remarks can have much more serious consequences.

It's a situation which brings Jonathan Swift’s famous words to mind. “A lie,' he is supposed to have said, "can travel halfway around the world while the truth is still putting on its shoes”.

The prospect is not just a problem for those in the public eye - celebrities whose fans are eager to seize on the very latest gossip - but for private individuals and companies too.

One of the most damaging allegations is that businesses, traders and professional people are out to try and “scam” or hoodwink customers.

Indeed, it can be so harmful to someone's reputation that it causes serious financial harm.

That's the reason why one law firm chose to confront a disgruntled former client, Philip Waymouth, who described them as a "scam solicitor".

After the groundless allegation saw client work tail off, the firm took Mr Waymouth to court.

Although he claimed that he was expressing an honest opinion and that his comments were in the public interest - a defence which was dismissed as "fanciful" - he was ordered to pay £25,000 in damages.

It isn't the first time that a law firm has turned to the libel courts for its own protection.

Ten years ago, a website called 'Solicitors From Hell', which allowed individuals to post their opinions on law firms, was shut down after a volume of complaints and a string of defeats in the courts.

That action prompted a number of similar sites to spring up, before they were also successfully challenged.

Since then, of course, social media has exploded and increasingly provided a natural habitat for those with a grudge.

Just last August, my colleague, Laura Wilkinson, told the Daily Telegraph that social media criticism was partially to blame for the number of defamation cases reaching the High Court almost trebling in the space of a year.

Perhaps the kind of people who casually post negative comments online have also been emboldened and encouraged in their thinking by the likes of Donald Trump.

After all, the now former US president recently described his first impeachment proceedings as the "single greatest scam in American political history", warned that the election which saw him unseated would be "the greatest scam of all time" and even referred to the coronavirus outbreak as a "hoax" by his Democrat rivals.

It's too early to say whether Mr Trump’s departure from mainstream politics and his being banned from various social media platforms will rein in such behaviour from others, especially at a time when the authorities really are combatting actual scams linked to the ongoing pandemic.

The Waymouth case is a reminder about the legal boundaries of criticism, and the financial implications of online defamation.

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Nick McAleenan is a Partner located in Manchester in our Media & Reputation Management; Data Protection & Privacy department

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