Journalists spend 400% of their time trying to avoid lawsuits, but for many, their actual knowledge of the law barely rises above superstition. That’s why newsrooms are full of tips, tricks and cheats for hedging your bets and edging around the system, but there’s one you hear again and again – just drop the word ‘allegedly’ in there and you’ll be fine.
It’s a joke that Private Eye editor Ian Hislop has used for years on Have I Got News For You, following his most venomous barbs and accusations with the legalese ‘allegedly’.
The only problem? It doesn’t work, as he advised Nick Robinson and an audience at the Cheltenham Literature Festival.
[Note: Right, this could get tricky – the Radio Times is not Private Eye, and I’m confident our legal team would not want its writers picking up habits from Britain’s most (allegedly) sued man. There may be some minor redactions to follow.]
Nick Robinson: “Since [event], I’ve noticed that Private Eye has become interested in [person], for [reasons]. Allegedly.”
Ian Hislop: “I should point out that allegedly is no defence at all in libel. I perpetrated this myth for years hoping some judge would believe me.”
“Allegedly doesn’t work. For instance if I say [person] is particularly [adjective], allegedly, then I’m just repeating the libel from someone else, which is another offence.”
[Note: You see?]
“But that one’s pretty safe, because it’s true.”
[Note: Danger of jigsaw identification here? What is ‘truth’ anyway? How much could the courts take us for?]
Nick Robinson then revealed the on-camera version of ‘allegedly’ – the question mark.
Nick Robinson: “In broadcasting the idea used to be you could add a question mark. I once had a conversation on Panorama when I was behind the camera, and they wanted to do a thing where they said Margaret Thatcher was mad.”
[Note: As Margaret Thatcher has passed away, we’re safe to repeat this. Welcome to the wacky world of libel law!]
“Then they said, would it help if we put a question mark on the end? And I said you want to put a question mark on the end of ‘is the Prime Minister mad’? On balance, that probably won’t help a huge amount.”
[Note: The reason they could say all this in front of a packed audience? Well, because it isn’t libel. When you say it out loud, it’s slander.]