If you’ve been living in a cave, you may not be aware that Angelina Jolie recently filed for divorce from Brad Pitt. The Brangelina Powerhouse is over, and the handling of it by many media outlets may give rise to defamation litigation for a while yet.
While many rumours have circulated as to the reason for the split, the most popular is that Pitt was having an affair with actress Marion Cotillard.
It is has been alleged, based on what some media outlets call a “well-placed source”, that the two developed a relationship on the set of their new film ‘Allied’.
WHY DOES THIS MATTER?
Almost all media outlets are reporting this rumour concerning Cotillard and Bitt’s alleged affair. If untrue, could Cotillard lay claim to a defamation action against the media organisations publishing the story?
Cotillard has been in relationship with her partner, Guillaume Cant, for nine years and the two have a five-year-old son together. The allegation that Cotillard had a role to play in the split of one of Hollywood’s most infamous couples has the capacity to seriously damage her reputation. Also, the hordes of Brangelina fans (Brangelians? Brangelinites?) are no doubt devastated – and fuelling potential media speculation.
If this allegation proves to be false, the media outlets that have ran with the story could face defamation actions. Interestingly, many of the larger, more established media organisations have made no mention of this rumour (which may be a wise decision).
WHERE DOES THE LAW STAND?
The law of defamation ultimately seeks to protect reputation.
To be successful in bringing a defamation action there must be an imputation bearing a defamatory meaning. This imputation has to be published and clearly linked to the Plaintiff bringing the action.
The test to determine if an imputation is defamatory is whether the material is likely to lead others to think less of the Plaintiff, or has the tendency to lower the Plaintiff in the eyes of others. In other words, whether the imputation is likely to harm the Plaintiff’s reputation.
In the United States public figures like that of Cotillard and Pitt, must often prove actual malice on behalf of the Defendant in order to be successful in bringing an action. Actual malice requires that the Defendant knew the alleged defamatory statement was false, or had reckless disregard as to whether it was true, and published it with an intent to inflict reputational damage.
FAMOUS DEFAMATION CASES THROUGH THE AGES
There have been various cases in the past where celebrities have been successful in bringing defamation suits.
The Defendants in these cases are usually media organisations who have published what they think will be juicy stories in order to attract readers, only proven to be completely baseless.
In 2005 Cameron Diaz sued News Group Newspapers, publishers of UK newspaper The Sun for defamation. The Sun had hinted that Diaz was having an affair with Shane Nickerson, who was both married and a father. At the time Diaz had been dating Justin Timberlake since 2003.
Accompanying the story were poor quality photos allegedly showing Diaz and Nickerson kissing, when there were in fact just hugging. It was argued that the story damaged Diaz’s reputation and caused harm to her relationship with Timberlake.
This matter settled out of court, with the newspaper offering an apology and an undisclosed sum in damages. Diaz also received an out of court settlement from American Media Inc., publisher of the National Enquirer, for running a similar story.
In 2007, Knightley won £3,000 in damages and recovered the sum of her legal costs from the Daily Mail after bringing a suit against them for defamation.
The newspaper ran a story alleging that Knightley had an eating disorder and contributed to the death of a young girl who suffered from anorexia.
The accusations were baseless and the High Court in London ruled in Knightley’s favour after she successfully argued that her reputation was harmed through the publication of the article.
Knightley donated the amount awarded to a charity that assisted those suffering from eating disorders.
In 1999 Eminem was sued by his mother, Debbie Mathers, for defamation after imputing in his debut single and in an interview with Rolling Stone that she was a drug abuser.
Mathers ultimately succeeded in the lawsuit but was only awarded US$1,600 in damages after originally seeking $10 million.
In 2014, Rowling sued the Daily Mail for defamation after they published an article which inaccurately stated Rowling had exaggerated claims that as a single mother she was stigmatized by fellow churchgoers.
Rowling has written an article 10 days earlier reflecting on her experience of living as a single mother in Scotland while writing the Harry Potter books. Rowling had described a one off incident where a visitor criticised her when she was working at a church.
The Daily Mail’s article alleged that Rowling had made more exaggerated claims which had left members of Rowling’s church upset. Rowling successfully argued in court that the article had injured her reputation. The Daily Mail agreed to apologise and pay a substantial sum in damages.
In 2004, Schwimmer successfully sued former charity fund-raiser Aaron Tonken for defamation. Tonken had made statements claiming that Schwimmer had demanded two Rolex watches before agreeing to appear at a 1997 charity fundraiser. Tonken’s statements proved to be false. Following Schwimmer successfully arguing that Tonken’s statements had caused harm to his reputation he was awarded $400,000 in damages.
WHAT CAN BE TAKEN AWAY FROM THIS?
Most media organisations are aware of the dangers that come with publishing these kinds of articles. Evidently, the accuracy of the information being published is of paramount importance.
However, if a media organisation does find itself looking down the barrel of a defamation suit, a meaningful assessment of how best to proceed should be carried out as soon as possible. This may involve considering the option of a settlement coupled with an apology.
In a number of the above cases the matters often settled out of court, even after years of costly legal proceedings.
Perhaps the best option available to media organisations is to cut their losses early in the piece and move on to the next headline. There is always another juicy celebrity split just around the corner.
The author wishes to acknowledge Law Clerk Mikaela Dooley for her contribution to this article.