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The United Kingdom has very strict libel laws. You can be sued for libel “if you lower someone’s standing in the eyes of his or her peers.”
To defend itself against an accusation of libel, a publication has to prove that the statement it published was true, that it was published “without malice,” and, where possible, was in the public interest.
If an allegation turns out to be false (ie based on incorrect facts), we will find it hard to defend, so fact checking is imperative. But we may have a small chance of defending ourselves, if the allegation has been shared fully with the “accused”, and that he or she has had a chance to respond, and if that response has been forwarded unedited to us. So here are a few “musts” for authors.
- Ensure that you check all your facts
- Ensure that all articles are balanced. If you are publishing an allegation against someone, you must give the accused a chance to reply.
- When you approach the accused, you must reveal in detail what your allegations are, so that he or she can have a chance to answer them in full. If, for example, you are going to claim that a hospital employed a doctor who was not properly qualified, and it did not investigate complaints against that doctor, you must put all the allegations in full to the hospital management, so that it has the chance to answer each and every one of the allegations.
- It is no defence to say that an allegation has already been published elsewhere. If an allegation about a doctor or a drug company has appeared in a newspaper in Spain, Italy, or the US, for example, we cannot rely on that fact to defend ourselves. Firstly, that local newspaper might have got the facts wrong; secondly, the libel laws might be different in that country. So although the doctor/company might not have sued in that location, he or she could come after the BMJ in the UK, because our libel laws are so tight.
- If you are worried about an article please alert the editor to any doubts you have, so that we can discuss it and, if necessary, can seek advice from the BMJ's libel lawyer.
- If you think that an issue is complicated and requires more investigation than you originally thought please ask the editor for more time (and - if we have commissioned the article from you - possibly for more money).
- Wherever possible, please obtain documentary evidence for your claim.
It is also important to remember that words can be interpreted in different ways. You may think that your article is harmless because you have not laid an allegation clearly at one person’s door (you might have just alleged that something dubious “occurred”), but it is not “you” that matters here, it is how an ordinary, disinterested member of the public would interpret it. If an ordinary person would infer from the story that someone in the story was responsible for the dubious occurrence, you can be considered to have libelled them.
If in doubt, please ask a BMJ editor for advice.