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August 01, 2010

When a 'joke' is no laughing matter

This is the first in a series of blogs about writing and communication. Good, clear, accurate communication is vital for us all to master as the range of different media outlets through which we can message, contact, inform, and educate continues to grow. In these blogs we will explore the pleasures and pitfalls of writing using these multi-media tools.

It is now so easy to communicate with pictures and moving images, through audio, and in writing. We talk about global audience, e-publishing, world-wide interaction, the conversation.

And we’re all doing it - especially through social networking sites such as Facebook which just two weeks ago announced it had notched up 500 million users.

Twitter, the four-year-old social networking site which lets users say something in up to 140 characters, yesterday (Sunday) announced its 20 billionth message had been posted. 

That’s a lot of posting going on - a lot of words being written and pictures being uploaded.

Because of the internet, we’re now all publishers. We are all authors. We can express what we like to our audiences which may number just six, sixty, or sixty thousand.

But can we really say whatever we want?

Be warned. We can’t.

This should be the first lesson for anyone embracing any form of social media, writing emails, putting up comments on websites, blogging, Twittering - even publishing articles in standard print media.

A lesson to be learned came last week when a Facebook ‘joke’ cost the author £10,000 in a High Court case which experts say highlights the dangers of posting even light-hearted material online.

Social networking sites are a great place to share your thoughts, words and deeds with all your friends, family and work colleagues. Sites such as MySpace, Facebook and Twitter can be light-hearted and jokey places.

But there are jokes...and jokes.

Sending up your friends or colleagues on any social networking site with the intention of making them look stupid or inferring they are not what they seem, is no joking matter. It is libel. And it could cost you thousands.

The object of the Facebook ‘joke’ was British student, Raymond Bryce. He was awarded £10,000 in damages last Wednesday (July 27), after his former friend Jeremiah Barber posted an image of Bryce superimposed on a picture of child porn. Barber had also written a note which insinuated Bryce was a paedophile.

Bryce was devastated. The 24-year-old law student from Staffordshire said more than 800 people would have been able to view the page. Bryce told the High Court in London he was too scared even to leave his home because he didn’t know who had seen the image and read the post.

The judge, Mr Justice Tugendhat, said, ‘This was not only defamatory, but a defamation which goes to a central aspect of Mr Bryce's private life as well as his public reputation.

‘This post was deeply offensive to him, but also a cause for alarm.

‘He could not go out in public because he feared he would be a victim of violence, which is not infrequently the result for those accused of paedophilia.’

The judge added, ‘I can infer that the number of people who saw this Facebook page would have been in the hundreds. This post was clearly a malicious act.
‘Damages in libel actions are awarded as compensation, not as punishment, to vindicate reputation, to compensate for harm to that reputation and as compensation for injury to feelings.’

We all need to take note of the judge’s words.

We communicate in writing everyday through social networking sites, Twitter, emails, text, and ink on paper.

But we must take care with everything we write. We have to remember we are publishing to an audience and we have a responsibility not to bring any person’s reputation, or any business’s reputation into disrepute.

To do so, we are defaming them. This means others will see them in a poorer light. The only defence to a claim of defamation is that the words spoken or written were true.

When we speak in a defamatory way, we commit slander.

When we write in a defamatory way, we commit libel.

If you send a private letter to just one person and you are unfairly critical of them - that is not defamatory. But if you send that same letter to others - you have published it to a third party. In that case you could be sued for defamation.

What might appear as a light-hearted comment or a joke to you, might not be taken that way.

So, when you are posting on sites, emailing (and copying others in) or Twittering, think about what you are saying. Is it true? 

It is far too easy, particularly in this electronic age, to write something and quickly press the send button.

Pause for thought. Consider: Is what I have written accurate? Is it fair? Have I checked my facts?

Ask yourself: Have I clearly expressed what I wanted to say or is it open to misinterpretation? How would I feel if someone said this about me? Would I feel my reputation was harmed?

Then, and only then, should you post.

Sally Ballard is the tutor for the online course, Writing for Publication, run by the University’s Centre for Lifelong Learning starting in October 2010.

For details, contact the Open Studies office on +44 (0) 24 7657 3739, or email

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