Saturday, 13 February 2010

The laws of libel and slander

are designed to protect people from others saying untrue things intended to bring them into 'hatred, ridicule or contempt'. (Libel is written. Slander is verbal.)
Nicola Morgan has just put up a post on her blog about this.
It is worth exploring.
I have to agree that the laws of libel and slander are being abused by the rich and powerful - but we still need these laws. What is needed is a change in the way they operate. There are issues here of power, privilege, freedom, rights and, above all, responsibilities. It is the last of these so many people fall down on.
The changes to South Australia's Electoral Act that I mentioned some blog posts back have not yet been repealed despite assurances from the Attorney-General. Expert legal opinion is that the law does, can and will apply during the election campaign should anyone choose to use it despite government claims that it will not and will be retrospectively removed. The reality is that anyone writing anything critical and not putting their name and address to it will be (a) breaking the law and (b) could be required to give information to identify themselves. The other reality is that the legislation now looks unlikely to be repealed in full. It may be, almost certainly will be, reviewed and altered but it is unlikely to be repealed. The present government may well be returned and the argument will be that it did not harm debate and makes people responsible for their statements.
It would be a compelling argument were it not for the issue of retribution or potential retribution. Whistle blowers have already discovered that legislation designed to protect them cannot protect them. There are too many other ways of dealing with whistle blowers and critics.
One is to threaten potential violence or other harm or to use actual violence or other harm. Another is to abuse the laws of libel and slander, or threatend to do so. I have had all this happen through doing no more than supporting the rights of others to be literate or to have access to the same basic services as other people - and I have supported these things pretty quietly compared with activists who strut the world stage. I suspect in fact that may be part of the problem. It is the quiet activists that worry the wrong doers. It is stealth that really worries them. They do not know where or how they will be attacked next. They can deal with the outspoken critics much more easily.
Writers - of anything - have a responsibility to use words responsibly. We need to be aware of the potential impact of our words and use them wisely and for good and, as Dag Hammarskjold puts it, "Never 'for the sake of peace and quiet,' deny your own experience or convictions."


Rachel Fenton said...

British libel laws are dodgy and they go against the basic British justice ideology of 'innocent until proven guilty' - it's bonkers. And as for the regulating you've been at the receiving end of, Cat, well - all I can say is I await the thriller/espionage novelisation of your life! Step aside Bond!

catdownunder said...

Australian and British law is much the same in respect of libel (and a lot of other things too).
If I wrote about my experiences here they would probably toss me inside and throw away the key!