What happens when you have gone too far?
I admit that I am a good communicator, but to label me a gossip is both hurtful and defamatory. I am a caring person and if I do pass on information it is for the good of the community, even if it turns out to be wrong. Alternatively, it is entertaining tittle tattle. Surely the law is not taking away the basic right of a chat between acquaintances, however distant?
(name and address withheld)
The victims of gossip, understandably, often turn out to have no sense of humour about it at all.
If you have gone too far, a quick apology, given and accepted, is the best course of action for all parties. The alternative is to wait and see if the victim will sue you for defamation which can be a successful strategy, depending on the seriousness of your defamatory statements. Lawyers and probably spouses can help even stubborn people to assess the stupidity of their statements.
You could claim “qualified privilege” in that you acted reasonably, not recklessly in making the defamatory statements even if they turned out to be wrong. A court will consider if it was your duty to make the statement e.g. a member of your staff had a terrible secret, or it was in the public interest e.g. your mother-in-law is an axe murderer. The person you tell must also have a need to know. For instance, your mother-in-law’s next door neighbour probably does not need to know about your employee’s secret but may find it useful to know about your mother-in-law.
You must act sensibly and check your source. If it is someone who is unreliable or is as big a gossip as you, then it may be best not to pass it on, especially if it will have serious consequences e.g. your mother-in-law’s arrest, detention and trial, even if she is eventually acquitted. Consider instead, confronting the accused person as people often get the wrong end of the stick.
If all else fails, there may be a few gossips on the jury who would empathize with you and quickly decide that you are blameless. But I would not count on it.
*Letter reproduced with the kind permission of estate of John Fytit, legal agony aunt.
© Paul Brennan 2018. All rights Reserved.