In the dog house, despite your best intentions

Of the many hurdles facing journalists in reporting fearlessly on issues of the day without inviting libel actions, the fact that you might inadvertently libel someone you have never heard of and never intended to libel may come bottom of your list of concerns.

That it should be a little higher on your list of points to watch out for is demonstrated by reports of the settlement of a libel action in the canine world.

Dog World, a leading weekly dog publication, published a lengthy article on allegations of abuse by a dog trainer called Stephen King. It reported that he had traumatised a small dog, Mitch, by yanking his choke chain and swinging him in the air “like a toy dog”, causing him injury and creating behavioural problems. What Dog World had overlooked was that there is another Stephen King with a prominent reputation in the canine world. He, too, is a dog trainer as well as an author, lecturer and expert in animal behaviour. This Mr King is a pioneer in the “clicker training” technique, which is a kind method of training animals.

There was nothing in Dog World’s article to alert its readers to the fact that it was not about this Stephen Geoffrey King, a respected figure in the world of dogs, but about Stephen Barry King, who was subsequently prosecuted by the RSPCA and convicted of offences relating to cruelty to animals. Unsurprisingly, Stephen Geoffrey King sued Dog World for libel.

Dog World had no intention of defaming Stephen Geoffrey King, but lack of an intention is no defence to a libel action. The test is whether the reasonable reader would understand the article to be referring to the complainant. In the case of Stephen King, known to the readers of Dog World as a leading dog trainer, the answer was emphatically yes. Dog World had no option but to reach a settlement with Mr King, apologising to him and paying him compensation.

It may seem tough for the journalist, but consider it from the dog lover’s point of view. Would the founding member of the Association of Pet Dog Trainers and author of Ready, Steady…Click! wish to be thought responsible for poor Mitch’s tonsillectomy and resulting behavioural problems? Let’s hope for Dog World’s sake that a well-known horror writer does not share a similar love for dogs.

Catherine Nelson is a trainee solicitor at Addleshaw Goddard

by Catherine Nelson

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