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Law Column: Subs’ delight – a Tale of Two Captions


I have always admired sub-editors, at least from afar.

As well as making sure the story fits on the printed page, they have the tricky job of writing headlines and picture captions.  I find it a real challenge to encapsulate a story into a few words, especially when there are usually space constraints.

So I tip my hat to the subs who do this difficult work day in and day out – especially when they add some humour into the mix!

But mistakes do happen, and two cases from different ends of the UK have brought home the message that getting a caption wrong can have legal consequences.  For obvious reasons, I can’t go into any detail, but both claims reveal similar issues which are worth bearing in mind.

The first story summarised a report which had been issued by one of the many official bodies that we have in the UK.  The story was fine: it was fair, accurate, contemporaneous, and not tainted by malice. Had the subject of the report complained about the story itself, he would have been sent packing with the words “Qualified Privilege” ringing in his ears.

Unfortunately, the problem lay in one single word in the caption.  The complainant was wrongly described as belonging to a particular organisation, a mistake which made it defamatory.  Had the correct word been used, there would have been no problem at all.

But because that single word produced a defamatory meaning which was clear and unarguable, there was no prospect of defending the claim, at least not successfully.  The publisher had no choice but to adopt the “Offer of Amends” procedure, resulting in the claim being settled after publication of an apology and the payment of (relatively low) damages and legal costs.

The settlement does not set a legal precedent.  However, some solace can be taken from the fact that the complainant’s solicitor agreed that the discount on damages (which may be claimed when an Offer of Amends is made), should be the maximum 50%.

Still, that single word proved to be an expensive mistake.

The second incident concerned an opinion piece, published by a title in an entirely different part of the UK.  Again the words were fine; the writer was expressing a valid, critical, opinion about a reasonably high profile activist.  Had a complaint been made about it, the publisher would have argued that the piece was not defamatory, or alternatively, the defences of Honest Opinion and Public Interest applied.  So far, so good.

The opinion was illustrated by a photo of the person in question.  The problem was that the caption wrongly stated that this person had been a founder member of a fringe organisation which has attracted some notoriety in recent years.  Whilst the activist had undoubtedly been operating in the same area of public debate, the assertion of being a founder of the fringe group was wrong.

The caption was inaccurate for the purposes of the Editors Code, so it had to be corrected.  But was the error defamatory?  Funnily enough, we argued strongly that it was not, because the fringe group is not an illegal organisation, and it espouses ideas which the complainant has supported publicly in the past.  How the complainant could ever prove that serious harm had been caused to his/her reputation was a mystery.

Fortunately, the matter resolved itself pretty quickly.  The title published a correction, as it had always been willing to do in accordance with clause 1 of the Editors’ Code, but it did not apologise.  And further good news in these difficult times was that no money changed hands.

As before, this resolution does not set a legal precedent.  But also as before, this error demonstrates the risk that may arise from even the smallest of mistakes.

So what lessons should be learnt from these separate cases?  Well as ever, it’s attention to detail.  Make sure the facts are correct, and the caption’s meaning is the same as in the copy.

One word is all it takes for (some) people to run to their lawyers!