September 28, 2012 Tabloids and the Law
Everyday hundreds of tabloid publications are distributed around the world. Everyday we are exposed to scandalous stories about celebrities’ escapades. We’ve seen celebrities at their best, their worst, and their naughtiest. According to an article in The New York Times, “How the Supermarket Tabloids Stay Out of Court” (1991),
“Every few months a Hollywood celebrity walks into Vincent Chieffo’s law office in Los Angeles, angrily waving a copy of one of the supermarket tabloids, those weekly newspapers that offer readers a feast of gossip, scandal and believe-it-or-not phenomena.
Asserting that an article is not true, the celebrity asks about suing the newspaper. Mr. Chieffo, a veteran entertainment lawyer, usually responds with what he calls “the facts of life” in the never-ending battle between these publications and the famous people whose lives provide the fodder for each week’s blaring headlines.”
Tabloids face few lawsuits against celebrities, mainly because the libel standard for public figures is high. Celebrities and Politicians put themselves out in the open to be scrutinized by the public eye; they have to prove “actual malice” in order for any libel case to move forward.
So, what makes the royal case of The Duke and Duchess of Cambridge any different? “Closer” is published by the Mondadori Group, who released a statement about the photos:
“The editors of both titles decided to publish the photos because their content is a clear expression of the news, they depict a true event, and they do not undermine the people photographed.”
A spokesperson for the Royal couple countered, “There can be no motivation for this action other than greed.” It’s a serious invasion of privacy. Middleton clearly had no idea she was under the lens of the paparazzi; the couple expected complete privacy at this secluded estate.
In his book “I Watched a Wild Hog Eat My Baby,” former National Enquirer editor Bill Sloan wrote that the publishers realized “there are two overwhelming reasons why no celebrity of any stature would stoop to suing a gutter-level publication like the Informer even in clear-cut cases of libel. For one thing, the publicity surrounding this type of suit could prove a thousand times more damaging than the original fabrication. For another, the publisher probably didn’t have any money to pay damages anyway.” Even if someone could prove that a story was fake, there isn’t really any law against making up fake news stories, as long as real people mentioned in the story haven’t been libeled. While the nude photos of the Duchess are indeed an invasion of privacy, it is true that she was sunbathing topless at the estate. For the French tabloid, the publicity outweighed the penalties.
An article from legalweek.com states two main arguments of tabloids, in which exposing a famous person’s possible not-so-chaste private life is okay:
- The person of interest is a role model, and must be exposed if they are behaving in a perverted manner or simply “not behaving impeccably.”
- It’s [the tabloid’s] job to expose those who mislead the public.
Libel occurs through the written word. Individuals subject to libel can sue for general damages including emotional distress, loss of reputation, humiliation, and more. They can also sue for financial losses affecting their property, profession, or business.
When deciding whether an story is slanderous, some things must be taken into consideration:
- Truth– The law says tabloids can defame someone and get away with it if the charge is true.
- Privilege– Any circumstance that justifies or excuses the actions of the defendant.
- Absence of Malice– For any libel case to move forward, the statement must have been published knowing it to be false or with reckless disregard to its truth.
- Fair Comment– If you put yourself out there for public scrutiny, critics have the right to comment on whether or not they like what they see.
Regardless of whether or not it’s legal, celebrities and politicians can suffer damage to their reputations and their careers through libel, just like anyone else.