Until last week, I thought I knew what libel was. I thought it was it was when you told a lie about a public figure, or in other ways defamed their character. And perhaps that is it what it means today. But I've been reading a fascinating book during the slow moments at work called The Influencing Machine. It's by Brooke Gladstone, who is an NPR managing editor and media analyst. If it actually was a novel, I'd call it a graphic novel, but since it's, well, analysis, I'm a bit at a loss what to call it. Gladstone herself seems to be okay with calling it a comic.
Anyway, one of the things she attempts to depict in comic form is the creation of and history of the free press, and how often and for what reasons it falls from those ideals. It's a fun and engaging way to learn a little history.
Gladstone talks about how the advent of printing (and her thesis is, with the advent of all new media technologies) the resultant freer speech of the populace was not always greeted with enthusiasm one might expect from royalty. Printers could be ruined by the charge of seditious libel for printing criticism of the government. Gladstone says, "And the truth is no defence. Legal doctrine holds that 'the greater the truth, the greater the libel'--the greater the threat to divine right."
So what is libel, if it is not falsification? Is it just an attack on someone's good name--even if the attack is based on truth? And if not, when did that change?
Libel involves first and foremost publication. It's when something that you say in writing, print, signs or pictures damages someone's reputation. ('Slander' is when this damaging thing is spoken.) But it's interesting to see that, just as Brooke Gladstone reports, in the earlier versions of defamation, saying that you were only speaking the truth wasn't much of a defense. According to what I've gleaned from Wikipedia, there was originally almost as strong a taboo against making public, insulting true statements as there was against making public, insulting false ones. It's something about the shouting something out loud that makes it libel, and perhaps our current ideas of inflammatory speech touches upon this. Apparently in English Common Law, the issue with libel is more in the realm of breaching the peace than the actual or imagined harm done to the defamed.
I'm not sure how matters stand in actual practice in England today. But in the U.S., to prove that someone has libelled you, you must first prove that the statement is false, next that the statement has actually caused harm, and finally that the statement was inadequately researched before being made. Anybody can be libelled. But when it comes to celebrities, it must also be proved that there was actually some intent to cause harm.
I got the basic etymology from the Online Etymology Dictionary, but leave it to Anatoly Liberman to make it more interesting. As the dictionary does, he traces 'libel' back to libellus, the diminutive of liber, or book. As he tells it, when it first made it's way into the English language, via French, at the end of the fourteenth century, it was still straightforward and meant a little book or pamphlet. Liberman goes on:
The rest is a classic example of a process called in works on historical semantics the deterioration of meaning. The OED traces every step of the downfall. “Little book” → “a formal document, a written declaration or statement” → “the document of the plaintiff containing his allegations and instituting a suit” → “a leaflet assailing or defaming someone’s character” → “any published statement damaging to the character of a person” → “any false or defamatory statement” (the last stage had been reached by the beginning of the 17th century).
Here's the rest of his article on The Long Arm of Calumny.