Author, religious critic and devoted journalist, Christopher Hitchens once wrote in his book ‘Love, Poverty, and War’ – a collection of his essays on those topics, that:
“I did not, I wish to state, become a journalist because there was no other ‘profession’ that would have me. I became a journalist because I did not want to rely on newspapers for information.”
A self proclaimed contrarian, the quote from Hitchens demonstrates his determination to find out the truth in his investigative and probing style of journalism. He would often challenge strong consensus positions by putting forward opposing information he had discovered that had been ignored by others, and often won over many in his articulate arguments.
Indeed, the truth is exactly what a competent journalist is supposed to convey, absent of any personal subjectivity. This can be a problem for some to do, especially in the present day when anyone with an internet connection can set up a website or blog and write anything they wish.
Sadly for them however, they cannot actually write anything they wish, as legal troubles could easily be walked into, including laws of defamation laws that apply to material a person posts online.
For example, if you were to dislike a certain famous person for example, and as a result made up a story about them on your blog that was completely untrue which then went viral, popping up in news stories which then effected the commercial performance of the said person, you will have committed an act of defamation.
By injuring the person’s reputation, causing people who see the story to think less of that person, the story has defamed the person’s character, and they are within their rights to sue.
Defences to the a defamation lawsuit could be on grounds of truth; if your story has truth to it, if it is honest opinion; if you were offering an honestly held opinion on the person rather than simply trying to drag their name through the mud by causing them trouble, or if the publication on the matter is of public interest.
This sort of thing also extends to social media, with the law concerning micro-blogging website Twitter clear – if you make a defamatory allegation about someone you can be sued for libel. According to a BBC article on the trouble in 2013 from Conservative peer who had been falsely accused of being a paedophile by many people on Twitter:
“A tweet is potentially libellous in England and Wales if it damages someone’s reputation “in the estimation of right thinking members of society”. It can do this by exposing them to “hatred, ridicule or contempt”. It is a civil offence so you won’t be jailed but you could end up with a large damages bill. The rules also apply to re-tweets.”
With 46% of 18-24 year-olds and 17% of over-65s unaware that they can be sued for defamation if they tweet an unsubstantiated rumour about someone, it seems as though a significant amount of people are in danger of infringing upon this law.
So perhaps we should ensure we fact-check what we share on the enormous world that is the internet quite thoroughly before hitting ‘publish’, and earnestly strive for the truth like a good journalist should do.