I was approached by an irate politician the other day who said to me, “You know you can defame someone without mentioning their name.” To which I replied, “It’s not defamation if it’s true.” The response was, “You’d better be careful.” To which I replied, “You had best be careful too.” The unsatisfied politician turned away and told me to “Go to Hell.”
This all took place in the waiting area outside of the official chambers and rather than return to continue my regular reporting, I chose to sit outside and do some research on defamation. I was right. In the Province of Ontario and across most of the civilized literate world, if you say something about someone that is true, it is NOT defamation. If you say something about someone that is false, but does not damage their character or reputation, it is NOT defamation.
The main difference between defamation and libel is that the former is in speech and the latter is in print. Since my stories were in print, the politician concerned already had it wrong. Beyond which, it is beneficial to have character and a good reputation in order to make libel and defamation claims credible.
Here’s an example. Let’s say a politician has been repeatedly found guilty of violating their political Code of Conduct by the local Integrity Commissioner. The factual reporting of this may, and should, cause damage to that politician’s reputation. However, it is NOT libel. Nor would it be defamation to discuss these factual charges by the Integrity Commissioner in a public forum. The truth shall set you free.
Further, if one reported that this same politician engaged in tantric meditation during phases of the full moon, while not true, if not damaging to the person’s reputation is not considered libel, or defamation if spoken. That’s the law.
Now, a smear is something else indeed, usually associated with the less factual and more viral human condition called “rumour mania.” Rumour mania takes place when misinformation begins to be circulated by word of mouth or social media, gets repeated and amplified, and takes on the aura of “truthful hyperbole”, or “fake news” as it is known in the Trump era.
When misinformation gets circulated as truth and drives the madding crowd into a “burn the witch” frenzy, it can cause untold harm and damage not only to personal reputations, but to the social fabric of community itself. If a person in a position of responsibility gives out that misinformation, intentionally or accidentally, they are duty bound to correct their error and apologize. Unfortunately, in this day of Facebook posts and reposts, the damage is already out there and morphing into a monster in cyberspace.
And with daily examples of this to the south of our national border, where the leader of a country can lie and sue until he wins, we have to go to higher ground for inspiration on how to lead, and speak and write.
I need to find higher ground after that assault on my journalistic integrity, so today I’m planting garlic at the Albion Hills Community Farm. Tomorrow I have an interview with Professor Art Weis who is taking me on a tour of the Koffler Scientific Reserve in King, an environmental legacy donated in 1995 by business innovator and philanthropist Murray Koffler. This University of Toronto scientific reserve is home to Professor Weis’s studies of natural ecosystems evolutionary responses to climate change. Koffler recently passed away and this interview will be to honour his devotion to scientific research and education.
The nice thing about science is its veracity. As famed astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson wrote recently: “To be scientifically literate is to empower yourself to know when someone else is full of shit.”
Now ain’t that the truth.
Skid Crease, Caledon