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Last Updated:  Wednesday, 12 March, 2003, 11:00 GMT
Is slander the new libel?
David and Victoria Beckham
Silence can be golden
Victoria Beckham is as much as 150,000 out of pocket after allegedly slandering an autograph dealer. Should we all watch what we say?

In the defamation family, slander has long been overshadowed by its bigger, badder brother, libel.

While people in the Middle Ages caught writing down false and injurious statements about another person risked having a hand amputated, for saying something nasty slanderers merely lost their ears.

Even in less bloodthirsty times, fines imposed on people losing libel cases dwarf those imposed on people who only defame in ordinary speech (if you say something defamatory on TV, on the radio or during a stage show, it counts as libel).

Sir Elton John accepted a whopping 1m from the Sun newspaper in 1988 to drop a libel case over false sexual allegations it had printed about the singer.

Defamation
Libel: To falsely attack the reputation of a person or body in a permanent form (i.e. in writing or in a drawing).
Slander:To make spoken defamatory statement.
Speech during stage plays, or radio and TV broadcasts is considered libel, rather than slander.
Even the BBC has faced massive claims for libel damages - with one company recently seeking, though not collecting, 12m from the corporation.

Slander is harder to prove in court - since unlike something in a book or newspaper, you cannot brandish a past utterance under a judge's nose.

Damages for slander also tend to be smaller since the spoken word is seen as being less powerful than a word printed or broadcast, says Gerrard Tyrrell of media law firm Harbottle and Lewis.

But with Victoria Beckham giving 55,000 (plus court costs) and a stack of signed goodies to the owners of a Kent autograph shop she disparaged, slander may have come of age.

Loose lips...

"Everyone reckons there is freedom of speech. Freedom of expression is enshrined in the new human rights laws, but laws governing defamation go back hundreds of years. Everyone needs to watch what they say," says Mr Tyrrell.

To land you in court, any maliciously damaging thing you say about a person or business has to be heard by a third party.

Even if you falsely accuse your local publican of watering down the beer in earshot of a packed bar - a statement sure to damn the innkeeper in the eyes of right-thinking drinkers - it is doubtful you will be pursued through the courts.

He that filches from me my good name, Robs me of that which not enriches him, And makes me poor indeed
William Shakespeare, Othello.
"If I walked into a shop and started shouting about something, no one would really care too much about what I was saying," says Chris Parkinson of Finer Stephens Innocent.

Celebrities have no special status in the eyes of the law, but judges have ruled that the utterances of the rich and famous carry more weight than those of ordinary folk.

"It's unfortunate, but there are always lots of eyes and, more importantly, ears on celebrities. They have a much higher burden, the poor things."

So when Victoria Beckham - while visiting the Bluewater Shopping Centre in March 2001 - allegedly said an autographed picture of her footballer husband in the window of GT's Recollections was fake, the newspapers were delighted to report remarks attributed to the former Spice Girl.

Sticks and stones..

The newspapers were careful not to themselves libel the shop's owner, Tim McManus, so printed Posh Spice's alleged slander alongside his assurances that the autograph had been bought from a reputable source.

However, Mr McManus found that trade suffered, with potential customers giving his shop a wide berth after its reputation had been brought into question by the Victoria Beckham episode.

You can slander someone, by falsely saying they have committed a crime; that they have a contagious disease likely to see them shunned (e.g. leprosy); or that they are a loose woman.

Salman Rushdie signing copies of The Satanic Verses.
"Are you sure you're David Beckham?"
The effects of such slanders are hard to gauge and the sum of damages required to redress the harm is difficult to calculate.

The autograph episode falls into another subsection of defamation - the disparaging of someone in their office, profession, calling, trade or business.

The value of a good name in business is a little easier to calculate - with a recent experiment using the online auction site eBay suggesting a vendor with an established good name can shift 7.5% more merchandise than an unknown seller.

A dealer made infamous by slander from the lips of one of the nation's most famous women would presumably fare even worse.

Of course, as with all laws, the rules governing slander offer some wiggle room. Honestly held opinions can be expressed without seriously risking a court case. You could say, for instance, that someone's singing isn't very good.


SEE ALSO:
The value of a good name
13 Jan 03 |  dot life



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