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Russell Brand: A lesson in libel for everyone

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Published on 19 September 2023

Carole Watson
Carole Watson

As comedian and wellness guru Russell Brand is accused of rape and other sexual assaults, University of Sunderland media law lecturer Carole Watson explains why investigative journalism costs time and money, and why Twitter users need to take more care.

The keyboard warriors inexplicably and shamefully supporting Russell Brand have taken to social media in their droves with conspiracy theories as to why The Sunday Times and Channel 4’s Dispatches team have aired their allegations now. 

Sunday Times journalists first heard rumours (I repeat, RUMOURS) of Brand’s despicable and criminal behaviour in 2019.

What took them so long to inform the world is this:

  • They needed to speak to hundreds of sources around the world to check and check again their information was accurate. They probably had to prepare pages and pages of sworn statements from many of these sources. 

  • They needed to watch hours of Brand’s stand-up shows and TV programmes to see what he had to say in the period of time he’s flippantly brushed off as his promiscuous years.

  • They needed to check medical and therapists’ records to corroborate alleged victims’ stories.

  • They needed to verify text messages allegedly sent to and from Brand were from his real phone number at the time.

And undoubtedly media lawyers at both News UK (the parent company of The Sunday Times) and Channel 4 spent days and days poring over their words and footage before giving the thumbs-up to publish and broadcast. That is what is called investigative journalism.

It takes time and costs money. That is why The Sunday Times newspaper costs (slightly) more than a grande Starbucks caramel macchiato and its online articles are paid-for too. It can’t be done by ChatGPT.  It can’t be done in a day or two. 

Unlike some of the general public who blithely post whatever unverified rumour they’ve read online or heard in the pub, journalists need to check their facts, then check again and then again. At the weekend, I read scores of Tweets wrongly naming several A list names on the comedy circuit, speculating they were the person about to be named and shamed. I’m sure you can recall seeing them too. Every one of those Twitter users can be sued, and it’s expensive.

Just a few months ago, we had the same pile-on when The Sun didn’t name the BBC star at the centre of an alleged sex scandal. We now know it was newsreader Huw Edwards but at least one TV personality, Jeremy Vine, sued a Twitter user who falsely named him as the alleged culprit. He won an apology and £1,000 which he donated to charity. 

Journalists know better than to just publish rumours and speculation. This is not just to ensure their stories are accurate but to ensure they have the best possible defence to being sued for libel (also known as defamation).

There are few more damaging allegations you can make against a person than to wrongly brand them a rapist and serial sex offender. Brand will be entitled to thousands of pounds damages if he successfully sues. The Sunday Times and Channel 4 would have to rely on what is called the truth defence which means you will need to prove in the high court that these claims are “substantially true” on “the balance of probabilities.”

It’s the defence successfully used by The Sun when they alleged Hollywood actor Johnny Depp was a wife-beater. It is the defence successfully used by Coleen Rooney when she was sued by fellow WAG Rebekah Vardy over those “Wagatha Christie” Instagram posts claiming Vardy was leaking stories about her to the tabloids. And it must only have been last weekend when News UK and Channel 4 felt it was safe to go ahead with these extremely damaging claims, believing they had credible witnesses and other documented proof which would persuade a judge in their favour. 

At the University of Sunderland, we will begin teaching media law to our postgraduate journalism students next week, and our undergraduate students in January. I have yet to see an exam paper without several tough questions on libel. 

Needless to say, I am hastily rewriting my lectures to include slides on why the papers felt emboldened enough to publish shocking front page headlines such as “Brand raped me.” And also to explain why it is vital these brave women continue to have their anonymity, regardless of whether they make a complaint to police and however long ago their alleged attacks took place. 

But the very first lesson to my media law students will be: don’t be a twit on Twitter. It’s not okay to tweet or retweet anything you read unless you have plenty of spare cash lying about. 

Carole Watson is Associate Head of School (Journalism and Communications) at the University of Sunderland and a member of the National Council for the Training of Journalists media law examinations board.