Business, Legal & Accounting Glossary

Definition: Blackmail


Quick Summary of Blackmail

The action, treated as a criminal offense, of demanding payment or another benefit from someone in return for not revealing compromising or damaging information about them.

Video Guide For Blackmail

What is the dictionary definition of Blackmail?

Dictionary Definition

  1. archaic A certain rate of money, corn, cattle, or other thing, anciently paid, in the north of England and south of Scotland, to certain men who were allied to robbers, or moss troopers, to be by them protected from pillage.
  2. Payment of money exacted by means of intimidation; also, extortion of money from a person by threats of public accusation, exposure, or censure.
  3. Black rent, or rent paid in corn, meat, or the lowest coin, as opposed to white rent, which paid in silver.
  4. To extort money or favours from (a person) by exciting fears of injury other than bodily harm, such as injury to reputation, distress of mind, false accusation, etc.; as, to blackmail a merchant by threatening to expose an alleged fraud.

In the UK, Blackmail is an offence under section 21 of the Theft Act (1968). The actus reus of the offence is the making of a demand with menaces. What amounts to a demand can be implied from the circumstances (Collister v Warhurst 1955). The jury should not be given any further direction on the meaning of menaces, unless the victim is particularly vulnerable or timid (R v Garwood 1987).

The mens rea of the offence requires that the demand be unwarranted. The demand is not unwarranted if the defendant belives that he has reasonable grounds for making the demand or the use of the menaces is a proper means of enforcing the demand. This will never be so if the demand is a criminal act (R v Harvey 1981). The mens rea also requires an intention to make a gain for himself or another or to cause a loss to another. This must be measured in money or other property and can include keeping what one has or not getting what one might get (section 34(2) of the Theft Act (1968)).

Full Definition of Blackmail

Blackmail is the crime of threatening to reveal substantially true information about a person to the public, a family member, or associates unless a demand made upon the victim is met. This information is usually of an embarrassing or socially damaging nature. As the information is substantially true, the act of revealing the information may not be criminal in its own right nor amount to a civil law defamation; the crime is making demands to withhold it.

Blackmail is similar to extortion – the difference being that extortion involves an underlying, independent criminal act, while blackmail does not.

The word is derived from the word for tribute paid by English and Scottish border dwellers to Border Reivers in return for immunity from raids. This tribute was paid in goods or labour (reditus nigri, or “blackmail”): the opposite is blanche firmes or reditus albi, or “white rent” (denoting payment by silver).

English Law

Under section21(1) of the Theft Act 1968 of English law, a person commits the offence:

if, with a view to gain for himself or another or with intent to cause loss to another, he makes any unwarranted demand with menaces; and for this purpose a demand with menaces is unwarranted unless the person making it does so in the belief:

  • (a) that he has reasonable grounds for making the demand; and
  • (b) that the use of the menaces is a means of reinforcing the demand.

The Act uses the word “menaces” which is considered wider in scope than “threat” and involves a warning of any consequences known to be considered unpleasant by the intended victim. This covers the spectrum from actual or threatened violence to the victim or others, through damage to property, to the disclosure of information.

Pretexts for blackmail have included the threat to reveal adultery or criminal acts. But whatever the nature of the menace, it must be direct. Any vague threat to cause “something bad” to happen to some other person, except when certain demands are met, should not affect the mind of an ordinary person.

Commercial blackmail has become more common. This arises when a large commercial organisation receives credible information that it will suffer loss or damage in a particular way unless money is transferred.

There are two major areas of threat:

  • denial of service attacks target corporations that have a major presence on the internet. Disrupting the portal through which on-line sales are made could seriously affect the corporation’s revenue flow and demonstrating an ability to orchestrate consistent attacks may well represent a sufficient menace for these purposes; and
  • introducing poisons or other dangerous chemicals into the products offered for sale in a supermarket or other large store could significantly damage retail sales, or influence a manufacturer or national distributor. For example, a blackmailer threatened Masterfoods Corporation, the company that manufactures Mars Bars in Australia, claiming to have poisoned seven Mars and Snickers bars at random in New South Wales.

Lawful Means

Debt collectors have been accused of blackmail, but those pursuing legal debts are generally able to justify their threats of repossession because, even though as it may be unpleasant to the victim, this is a legitimate use of lawful civil law remedies. By contrast, those chasing illegal debts (a gambling debt, for example, which was not until recently enforceable under English law) who back up their demands with the threat of bodily injury cannot avail themselves of the same defence. There will also be liability even though the debts are legally owed if the menaces are of a criminal nature, e.g. of an assault or more serious violence or criminal damage occurred. The offence criminalises the means adopted by the creditors as the social problem to be deterred, rather than the evasion by the debtors. The creditors are expected to use the standard judicial remedies to recover what is owing.

The maximum sentence under the terms of the Act is life imprisonment; this reflects the severity of the offense, which in turn, can consequently destroy a person’s reputation, personal life and livelihood.

If the elements of blackmail are not made out and the defendant has acquired a vehicle, a charge under s12 Act 1968 may be preferred, see TWOC.

Examples of Blackmail in a sentence

To levy blackmail

Cite Term

To help you cite our definitions in your bibliography, here is the proper citation layout for the three major formatting styles, with all of the relevant information filled in.

Page URL
Modern Language Association (MLA):
Blackmail. Payroll & Accounting Heaven Ltd.
February 02, 2023
Chicago Manual of Style (CMS):
Blackmail. Payroll & Accounting Heaven Ltd. (accessed: February 02, 2023).
American Psychological Association (APA):
Blackmail. Retrieved February 02, 2023
, from website:

Definition Sources

Definitions for Blackmail are sourced/syndicated and enhanced from:

  • A Dictionary of Economics (Oxford Quick Reference)
  • Oxford Dictionary Of Accounting
  • Oxford Dictionary Of Business & Management

This glossary post was last updated: 26th November, 2021 | 0 Views.