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“Mafia Gang” – are there grounds for defamation?

In a world of social media, 24/7 news, podcasts and television, and face to face interaction we are constantly surrounded by written and oral forms of communication.

It is therefore natural that some of those communications could give rise to reputational management issues and defamation claims.

Following a recent Premier League defeat for Nottingham Forest against Everton, Forest released a number of statements via “X” (formerly Twitter) and their own website, condemning a number of refereeing decisions during the game. Following the release of those statements (which are themselves subject to a separate investigation), Sky Sports pundit Gary Neville described Forest’s reaction as “like a mafia gang statement” and likened them to a “petulant child, it’s embarrassing“.

In response to Neville’s statements, Forest have intimated that they are considering writing to Sky Sports with a view to potentially commencing legal proceedings. It’s likely that any action will relate to the law of defamation.

What is defamation?

Defamation covers “libel”, which is the publication of defamatory material and “slander”, which relates to verbal/oral statements. There is a slight nuance between the two, but both are concerned with whether or not a statement adversely affects the entities reputation .

The remedies for a successful claim could include:

  • Damages: an award of money to compensate the claimant for the harm that they have suffered
  • Injunction: an order that restrains a party from publicising or making the offending statement
  • An order to remove the offending statement from any publication.

Legal Test

There are several core elements for a claim to succeed. The offending statement would need to:

  1. Be published to a third party
  2. Be defamatory in nature (i.e. such that it tends to lower the claimant in the estimation of right-thinking people generally)
  3. Refer or identify the claimant (identify does not mean the claimant specifically needs to be named, only that a reasonable person would understand the words as referring to the claimant)
  4. Has caused, or is likely to cause, serious harm to the reputation of the claimant.

There is no requirement for the claimant to demonstrate that there was an intention for the statement to cause harm, nor, in the case of an individual, that there was (or likely to have been) any monetary harm.

However, there is an additional requirement that a claimant company/organisation (such as Forest) would need to demonstrate serious financial loss (or a likely chance of it).

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There are a number of defences that are open to those that have been accused of defaming another. The most common are that the offending statement was:

  1. True
  2. Was the honest opinion of the person making it.

“Mafia Gang” – could Neville be liable?

A claim could possibly be brought against Sky Sports, because employers can be held vicariously liable in relation to their employee’s statements.  Any claim would likely be brought for slander, because the term used was “on air” and not by way of written publication.

As such, Nottingham Forest would need to fulfil the legal test outlined above. It may be more difficult to prove that the comments (which were made in a wider discussion regarding refereeing) have actually caused, or are likely to cause, serious financial damage.

The difficulty for Forest (as with any defamation claimant) is that if you issue defamation proceedings, you put your entire reputation up for public examination.  The  defendant will seek to present evidence of the claimant’s true reputation to seek to demonstrate that the claimant already has a bad reputation and has not suffered serious harm.  The defendant is able to do so within court proceedings because they are a protected and privileged forum in which they can make further allegations against the claimant.   It remains to be seen whether any action will be taken by Forest. No doubt that football fans will continue to debate the standard of refereeing, irrespective of the outcome of this matter!

However, what is clear is that individuals, including employers, need to be mindful of statements that are made both in writing (such as in social media, newsletters and publications) and orally (such as during punditry/commentary, videos and podcasts).

Here at Ward Hadaway, our expert Commercial Litigation team is on hand to assist with any defamation or sport related queries. Get in touch with Matthew Brady, or another of our Legal Experts.

Please note that this briefing is designed to be informative, not advisory and represents our understanding of English law and practice as at the date indicated. We would always recommend that you should seek specific guidance on any particular legal issue.

This page may contain links that direct you to third party websites. We have no control over and are not responsible for the content, use by you or availability of those third party websites, for any products or services you buy through those sites or for the treatment of any personal information you provide to the third party.

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