Defamation research and social media mean it’s time to consider reform

By MARK PEARSON

The Sydney Morning Herald recently published my commentary welcoming the NSW Government’s rethink of defamation law in the light of recent research showing a large number of cases involve ordinary citizens (rather than celebrities) and social media posts (as distinct from media publications).

It was titled ‘Social media gives people a wider audience for their bile – and defamation laws must reflect that’.

Here is the extended unedited version for those with a special interest:

The decision to review NSW defamation laws announced yesterday is overdue, and changes need to address several aspects of the legislation as well as the very human flaws of vindictive remarks, fragile egos and ignorance of the law.

NSW District Court defamation expert Judge Judith Gibson called for reform this week, pointing to the rise of Internet-related defamation cases, a phenomenon unanticipated when uniform defamation laws were introduced throughout Australia in a landmark 2005 reform.

Her argument was underscored by research released last week by the UTS Centre for Media Transition which found that more than half of defamation cases over the past five years involved reputational damage in a digital medium, up from 17 per cent in 2007 when social media was in its infancy.

The common perception that defamation cases typically involve celebrities suing the media for millions of dollars – like recent litigants Rebel Wilson and Geoffrey Rush – is a myth. The study showed that among the 189 decided cases from 2013-2017, only one third of defendants were media companies, and only about one fifth of those bringing the action were celebrities or public figures.

When you read the detail on the cases, it becomes clear that most defamation cases are contests between ordinary citizens over negative remarks they have made about each other on social media, websites, emails and other means of digital communication.

With the advent of social media, everyone is a publisher in the eyes of defamation law – and many more people in far-flung places can see or hear the nasty things we say about each other.

Broken friendships, business disagreements and political or moral debates escalate and get vindictive and personal.

There was the first Twitter case where a misguided former student posted a social media character assassination against a school teacher because he mistakenly thought she had cost his father his job.

And the disgruntled businessman who used the social media platform WeChat and targeted emails to tell the world a meat trader was a conman, corrupt and a criminal, with no factual basis.

And the Victorian junior football umpire with Asperger’s Syndrome who was taunted on a US autism website with falsities that he was a pedophile and was faking his condition.

For centuries there have been some people inclined to write poison pen letters, spread nasty rumours and to post sick messages on public noticeboards and toilet walls. The Internet and social media has given them a wide audience for their bile and some of these now result in defamation trials.

Prior to the 2005 reforms, defamation law in Australia was a complicated mess. Major variations existed across the states and territories on a host of issues, including the limitation periods in which people could bring an action and the defences available. ‘Forum shopping’ was rife, with plaintiffs selecting the jurisdiction where the law best suited their case.

The reforms were remarkable in that attorneys-general in eight states and territories reached agreement and forged the changes through their parliaments.

But those laws are desperately in need of reform if they are to catch up with the social and technological changes of the past decade.

The ‘offer of amends’ system introduced with the last reforms was a novel initiative to keep actions out of court with encouragement for an early offer of damages and an apology. But it is complex, often appealed, and other mediation incentives should be put in place to educate parties about settling their differences earlier to avoid the public and personal expense and distress of litigation. Alternative remedies to damages and injunctions would be a bonus.

The triviality defence is flawed and needs to include something of the flavor of the UK’s “serious harm” test – requiring serious reputational harm as a prerequisite to an action.

Changes also need to encourage public interest journalism rather than punish it.

Journalists deserve a stronger public interest (qualified privilege) defence which does not fail when they refuse to reveal their confidential sources and allows for minor errors in important exposés.

And the truth defence should be narrowed to focus on the single most obvious defamatory meaning to give certainty to the reportage so that lawyers do not generate more obscure meanings a journalist might never have anticipated when researching a story.

The implied freedom to communicate on matters of government – a welcome but technical initiative of the High Court – should be enshrined as a formal statutory defence and satirists should get their own defence to better protect robust political critique via parody and satire.

But in tandem with defamation reforms we need government investment in digital legal literacy. School and adult learning curricula must include the basic legalities of social media and Internet use – stressing the key risks posed by defamatory and contemptuous posts.

Teachers might use some of those moral aphorisms our mothers used to tell us.

They would scold us over our nasty comments with “Do not say to others what you would not want said to you”.

And they would soothe our fragile egos:  and “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but names will never hurt me.”

Education and mediation encouraging mindful communication might resolve some defamation actions before they even start.

 


Disclaimer: While I write about media law and ethics, nothing here should be construed as legal advice. I am an academic, not a lawyer. My only advice is that you consult a lawyer before taking any legal risks.

© Mark Pearson 2018

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Why the public isn’t allowed to know specifics about the George Pell case #MLGriff

By MARK PEARSON

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

File 20180320 31614 7icnee.jpg?ixlib=rb 1.1
George Pell emerges from court during his committal hearing on historical sexual offences.
AAP/Stefan Postles

Mark Pearson, Griffith University

Many Australians are left perplexed when media coverage of high-profile criminal cases is suddenly suspended or abbreviated “for legal reasons”. The current committal hearing of Catholic Cardinal George Pell on historical sexual offences engages the principle of “open justice” and some of its most important exceptions.

Coverage of such matters is restricted at various stages of criminal trials. This is because of the relative priority the courts and lawmakers have assigned to the principles of open justice and the administration of justice, and the competing rights of free expression, privacy and a fair trial.

What is ‘open justice’?

The principle of open justice dates back to at least the 12th century; it involves people’s access to observe the goings-on in a courtroom. It was later extended to the media as “the eyes and ears of the public” in court.

Australia’s High Court has ruled that open justice is of constitutional significance, and nothing should be done to discourage the media from publishing fair and accurate reports of what occurs in the courtroom. But, it added, the principle is not absolute.

An open court involving fair and accurate media coverage is thus the default position for Australian courts. The common law recognises only a limited number of well-defined exceptions. Lawmakers have developed hundreds more.

One important common law limitation is in the area of sub judice contempt. This puts a halt to prejudicial coverage of a criminal matter from the moment an accused is arrested or charged right through until the appeal period has expired.

Important restrictions here are upon any suggestion an accused might be guilty (or innocent), coverage of contested evidence that may or may not be put to a jury, coverage of earlier proceedings (such as preliminary hearings and royal commissions), interviews with key witnesses, details of any confessions, the criminal history or character evidence about the accused, and visual identification of the accused if that might be at issue in a trial.

Specific restrictions on court cases

Legislation in all Australian jurisdictions has placed a litany of further restrictions on attendance at – and reporting on – a host of situations. These include family law cases, juvenile cases, mental health proceedings and – most relevant here – sexual matters.

The statutory gags forcing closure of courts, banning of coverage, and de-identifying of parties vary in important ways. This is because lawmakers have placed a differing emphasis on the competing rights and interests.

For example, if Pell was facing his committal hearing in South Australia or Queensland, he could not even be identified until after he is committed to trial – if that eventuates.

Lawmakers in those states have decided the reputational damage attached to an allegation of a serious sexual offence is so damaging that an accused person should not be identifiable until it is proven there is at least a prima facie case to answer at trial.

In Victoria, where Pell’s committal hearing is taking place, the accused can usually be identified. However, other restrictions apply either under legislation or in suppression orders issued by a presiding judge or magistrate.

In no Australian jurisdiction can the victim (known as the “complainant”) be identified – directly or indirectly – in sexual matters. But the laws vary on whether they might be identified after proceedings with their permission or the court’s permission.

This means complainants who might have been identified in earlier coverage or proceedings are suddenly rendered anonymous from the moment the matter is “pending” – after the arrest or charging of a suspect.

Special protections apply to complainants during committal hearings involving sexual offences. This includes closing the court while victims give evidence.

A complex array of policy issues inform these kinds of restrictions. These include the perceived vulnerability of victims, their privacy, and the important likelihood that victims might not come forward to bring charges of this nature if they sense they might be in the media spotlight.

Do we need a rethink in the digital age?

Victoria has had more than its share of journalists and others falling foul of court restrictions through defiance or ignorance of the law.

Former journalist and blogger (now senator) Derryn Hinch has twice been jailed as a result of contemptuous coverage – once in 1987 for broadcasting prejudicial talkback radio programs about a former priest facing child molestation charges, and again in 2013 after refusing to pay a A$100,000 fine for blogging the prior convictions of Jill Meagher’s accused killer in breach of a suppression order.


Read more:
You wouldn’t read about it: Adrian Bayley rape trials expose flaw in suppression orders


Two ABC journalists were convicted of identifying a rape victim in radio broadcasts in 2007. They and their employer were later ordered to pay her $234,190 in damages in a civil suit for the invasion of her privacy among other injuries.

In 2017, Yahoo!7 was fined $300,000 for contempt after it published social media material about a victim and the accused. The publication forced the jury in a murder trial to be discharged.

Many of the restrictions on coverage are problematic in the digital era. Mainstream media are more likely to be charged with sub judice contempt than social media users because the large audiences of mainstream media mean their prejudicial coverage is more likely to reach potential jurors.

The cross-jurisdictional nature of digital publishing also renders journalists and social media users subject to the tangled web of restrictions on criminal justice reporting when covering a criminal matter from another state.

Court orders to take down earlier reportage on websites are typically futile, because online dissemination is so widespread. So, the bizarre situation exists where the prior character evidence and coverage of earlier proceedings still sits online for anyone to access with a simple search of an accused’s name.

This is problematic if a rogue juror decides to become a cyber Sherlock Holmes. It means we require better training of jurors.


Read more:
Trial by social media: why we need to properly educate juries


Suppression orders are also a problem because these are typically circulated only to mainstream media in the trial’s immediate vicinity. This leaves others blissfully unaware of the orders. Some orders – known as “super injunctions” – are so secret that even publication of the fact they have been issued is prohibited.

Victoria’s Open Courts Act was meant to reduce the number of suppression orders and inject an element of consistency to the issuing of these. However, it has been problematic.

The ConversationAt least the media are better assisted in the modern era. Court information officers help explain the various restrictions and keep the media well briefed in high-profile trials – as they have done in Victoria during Pell’s committal hearing.

Mark Pearson, Professor of Journalism and Social Media, Griffith Centre for Social and Cultural Research, Griffith University, Griffith University

© Mark Pearson 2018

Disclaimer: While I write about media law and ethics, nothing here should be construed as legal advice. I am an academic, not a lawyer. My only advice is that you consult a lawyer before taking any legal risks.

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Contempt in the face of the court is no laughing matter – usually #MLGriff

By MARK PEARSON

The ancient charge of ‘contempt in the face of the court’ is alive and well, as I have found in the research for the next edition of our text The Journalist’s Guide to Media Law (with Mark Polden).

Almost any behaviour that disrupts the courtroom can be considered a ‘contempt in the face of the court’ – a charge directed at behaviour in the actual courtroom that interferes with the administration of justice. The Australian Law Reform Commission (1987: 3) defined ‘contempt in the face of the court’ as:

Improper behaviour in court. Anything done to interrupt significantly the smooth and appropriately dignified hearing of a case in a courtroom risks being treated as contempt and punished accordingly.

Examples have included outright physical assaults in the courtroom, verbal abuse, inappropriate dress, sleeping and even attempting to release laughing gas into the court building.

Two recent examples have included:

  • The Indigenous laughing case (2017). An Aboriginal land rights activist was jailed for two hours after defying a Gympie magistrate by laughing at him in the courtroom. Gary Tomlinson (also known as “Wit-boooka”) had challenged the authority of the court to hear public nuisance and trespass offences related to a protest at Gympie Regional Council.
  • NT homeless ‘genius’ case (2017). A homeless man, self-described genius and would-be mayoral candidate who continuously insulted court officers interrupted the judge, and disrobed in court was twice jailed for contempt in the face of the court in 2016 and 2017. His appeals failed against his total of five months’ contempt sentence and alleged bias by the judge.

Given that both cases involved citizens who appeared outside of the mainstream of society, it is worth monitoring future cases to assess whether the charge is being disproportionately used against vulnerable, alienated, outspoken or disenfranchised individuals.

Journalists and bloggers are warned to show respect in the courtroom. This extends beyond paying attention to the proceedings, remaining clothed and avoiding throwing projectiles at the magistrate.

Indigenous laughing case, 2017. Gorrie, A. (18 December 2017). UPDATE: Gympie activist serves two hours for contempt. Gympie Times <https://www.gympietimes.com.au/news/update-gympie-activist-serves-two-hours-for-contem/3293365/>

NT homeless ‘genius’ case (2017). Jenkins v Whittington [2017] NTSC 65. < https://www.austlii.edu.au/cgi-bin/viewdoc/au/cases/nt/NTSC/2017/65.html>

 

© Mark Pearson 2018

Disclaimer: While I write about media law and ethics, nothing here should be construed as legal advice. I am an academic, not a lawyer. My only advice is that you consult a lawyer before taking any legal risks.

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Article 10 expert discusses free expression as a human right #MLGriff

By MARK PEARSON

It was a pleasure hosting two esteemed European media and law colleagues over summer.

Recently retired colleagues Emeritus Professor Dirk Voorhoof (University of Ghent) and Dr Inger Høedt-Rasmussen (University of Copenhagen) toured Australia and New Zealand, visiting law schools and media law colleagues along the way.

They recently formed the Legal Human Academy, an organisation based online from Denmark critiquing media law, human rights and legal education issues.

Professor Voorhoof is an acknowledged expert in Article 10 (free expression) rights and cases in Europe, so I took the opportunity to interview him about this for the benefit of media law students.

View the interview here [14 mins 41 secs, produced by Bevan Bache, Griffith University].

 

© Mark Pearson 2018

Disclaimer: While I write about media law and ethics, nothing here should be construed as legal advice. I am an academic, not a lawyer. My only advice is that you consult a lawyer before taking any legal risks.

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Making the case for a discipline [Book Review from Australian Journalism Review]

By MARK PEARSON

There has been much debate over many years about the place of journalism education in the academy,  whether journalism is even a ‘discipline’ on a par with others, and whether a journalism methodology should be considered ‘academic’ research.

Chris Nash offers a refreshing and thoughtful perspective on these issues in his recent book What is journalism?: The art and politics of a rupture (2016), London, Palgrave MacMillan, which I reviewed for the December 2017 issue of Australian Journalism Review.

Here, I offer the unedited version of that review as submitted.

Making the case for a discipline [Book Review]

Australian Journalism Review
Volume 39 Issue 2 (Dec 2017)

Pearson, Mark (Reviewed by)
Abstract: Review(s) of: What is journalism?: The art and politics of a rupture, by Nash, C. (2016), London, Palgrave MacMillan, ISBN 9781137399335 hbk, 9781137399342 ebk, hbk, ebk, 247pp, $136 hbk, $116 ebk.

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To cite this article: Pearson, Mark. Making the case for a discipline [Book Review] [online]. Australian Journalism Review, Vol. 39, No. 2, Dec 2017: 213-214. Availability: <https://search.informit.com.au/documentSummary;dn=360615283766665;res=IELLCC&gt; ISSN: 0810-2686. [cited 16 Feb 18].

Personal Author: Pearson, Mark; Source: Australian Journalism Review, Vol. 39, No. 2, Dec 2017: 213-214 Document Type: Journal Article, Book Review ISSN: 0810-2686 Subject: Journalism; Journalistic ethics; Mass media–Social aspects;

 

Nash, C. (2016). What is Journalism? The Art and Politics of a Rupture. London: Palgrave Macmillan. ISBN 978-1-137-39933-5 hdbk / ISBN 978-1-137-39934-2 ebook; pp. 247; RRP $136 hdbk / $116 ebook

Reviewed by Mark Pearson

Chris Nash reaffirms his place as a leading intellectual in Australian journalism education with this book exploring the theoretical and methodological status of journalism in the academy.

While the main title – What is Journalism? – might be suggestive of an introductory undergraduate text or even a careers guide, the subtitle The Art and Politics of a Rupture establishes Nash’s higher purpose – to develop and map a status for quality journalism as an academic method and discipline in its own right rather than mere fodder for ‘true’ academic disciplines like history, sociology, philosophy and media studies.

“As far as other disciplines are largely concerned, there is no issue to discuss; there is scholarship, there is journalism, and they are different,” Nash writes. “Journalist scholars are being crushed in a glacial silence, caught between the continuing innovations and achievements in professional practice and the wall of resistance in the academic world. The position is untenable. (p. 236).

This is a book targeted at the academy and graduate journalism students, particularly those experienced journalists undertaking doctoral research degrees in journalism.

In a precise yet accessible narrative, Nash centres his argument upon the fulcrum of an epistemological ‘rupture’ – when artist Hans Haacke’s exhibition at New York’s Guggenheim Museum in 1971 was cancelled by the museum director because three of the works were “not art but journalism” – in a “high-profile act of repudiation” (pp. 1 and 203).

Nash juxtaposes this case study (and suspends the question of whether journalism can, in fact, be art) against an analysis of two works of non-fiction by I.F. Stone, regarded as among the greatest journalists of the twentieth century – one critiquing the US role in the Korean War and the other using available artefacts to revisit the events surrounding the ancient Trial of Socrates.

Nash proceeds to elicit frameworks (some presented as conceptual matrices) – drawn from Pierre Bourdieu, David Harvey, Henri Lefebvre, Michel-Rolph Trouillot and Gaye Tuchman – to identify key components of what might constitute journalism, including space, time, social relations and imagination. He treats as methodological challenges journalism’s purported shortcomings as an academically acceptable research output – the elusive notion of ‘news sense’, the focus on a present without context and the unquestioning dependence on powerful establishment sources.

The result is a novel and important contribution to the debate about the constituent components of journalism at its best.

‘News sense’ is that opaque quality, a sixth sense for identifying newsworthiness in a given set of facts that might make it a story – a facility journalists are meant to either possess innately or learn on the job. In Australian journalism education it was so closely identified with what it meant to be a journalist that Adelaide Advertiser cadet trainer Bob Jervis adopted it as the title of his leading craft-oriented journalism textbook in 1985.

Nash elevates this ‘nose for news’ beyond its trade school status by building it into “a theory that validated the reflexivity of what appears to be intuition” and links it to spatiotemporarity (p. 109). To do so, he invokes Bourdieu’s field theory and its incumbent concept of ‘habitus’ as a metatheoretical framework.

As predominantly a media law scholar, I am in awe of Nash’s command of the body of intellectual literature that backgrounds his argument – which he explains in his clear and erudite style and then weaves it meticulously into his model (not a ‘theory’, he insists) of what journalism truly is.

In an era of technologically, economically and culturally disrupted journalism, Nash might have found more room to flesh out the important question of journalistic identity – in both the form of self-identity of those who practice journalism and the acknowledgement of others (peers and audiences) that the work produced is indeed journalism. Self-identity involves journalists’ self-labelling as ‘journalists’ rather than as historians, artists, strategic communicators, PR practitioners or sociologists. It was a crucial distinction between the two main protagonists in his study – Haacke who produced works of ‘journalism’ but who identified as an artist, and Stone who identified as a journalist but produced incisive historical and political analysis yet eschewed the academy.

There are parallels with indigenous identity here – genetics alone are not enough. And this is where peer and audience acceptance plays a role in who might be a journalist and whether the work they produce might be accepted as ‘journalism’, whether or not it meets the Nash criteria for journalism of such a high quality and standard of reflexivity that it might also stand as acceptable academic research.

Linked here is the journalist’s sense of audience, which Nash acknowledges:

This public morality sits well with journalism because a defining element of journalism is its public voice. It is possible for scholars in other disciplines to directly address only one another through academic texts and conference presentations, but journalism must always directly address a notional public and use a public voice. (p. 227).

All of this has practical implications for pragmatic issues like government agencies’ proffering a field of research code to journalism and universities’ acceptance of works of journalism as academic research outputs. In short, Nash has offered tools for such debates with this important addition to the international literature on journalism epistemology, theory and methodology.

The global positioning and application of his thesis is a crucial component of his achievement. It is heartening to see an Australian journalism educator take the world stage with this impressive scholarly contribution.


The review sits within an excellent edition of AJR – the last edited by my esteemed colleague Professor Ian Richards – recently retired from the University of South Australia. A heartfelt welcome to  new editor, Dr Kathryn Bowd from the University of Adelaide.

Here are the contents of Ian’s final edition. I recommend it to you and your libraries for subscription.

Australian Journalism Review

Volume 39 Issue 2 (Dec 2017)

Publisher: Journalism Education AssociationISSN: 0810-2686Publication Type: JournalSubjects: Media; Newspapers; Journalism Coverage: Volume 31, Issue 1 (July 2009) – onwards (Comprehensive)Peer Reviewed: Yes

Database: Literature & Culture Collection

Editorial
Obituaries
Health Journalism
10

Outlining a model of social journalism for health

Sweet, Melissa; Geia, Lynore; Dudgeon, Pat; McCallum, Kerry; Finlay, Summer May; Williams, Megan; McInerney, Marie; Armstrong, Ruth; Doggett, Jennifer; Coopes, Amy; Ward, Mitchell J; Senior, Tim; Ricketson, Matthew

11

#JustJustice: Rewriting the roles of journalism in Indigenous health

Williams, Megan; Finlay, Summer May; Sweet, Melissa; McInerney, Marie

Articles
Emerging Scholars
Book Reviews
22

Cogent account of media influence

Spurgeon, Christina

Contributor Notes
Ethics Statement

 

Disclaimer: While I write about media law and ethics, nothing here should be construed as legal advice. I am an academic, not a lawyer. My only advice is that you consult a lawyer before taking any legal risks.

© Mark Pearson 2018

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Rare victory for truth defence in vocational education case – #MLGriff

By MARK PEARSON

CASE REPORT: Charan v Nationwide News Pty Ltd [2018] VSC 3

The Australian newspaper had a rare victory using the truth (or justification) defence to defamation in a recent case involving a vocational education businessman.

Pure truth defences rarely make their way through the courts because they are usually either settled or decided on other defences such as honest opinion, fair report, triviality or qualified privilege.

Plaintiffs will not usually undergo the pain of public defamation trials if there is some semblance of truth to the allegations against them which will be aired for all to see in media coverage.

 

Facts

On November 20, 2015, The Australian newspaper published a print article (‘Watchdog takes peak training college to court’) and a similar online version (‘ACCC to take top training college Phoenix Institute to court’). The story was about proposed court action by the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) against a vocational training college called Phoenix Institute owned by the publicly listed Australian Careers Network company (CAN) in the midst of a general crackdown on the sector over unscrupulous door-to-door marketing practices. The article mentioned earlier media reports that alleged Phoenix had sent sales staff into housing commission estates, pressuring potential students to join up and stated that the parent company was under investigation by both the Federal Department of Education and the Australian Skills Quality Authority and that its shares had been suspended from trade for the previous month. The article identified the plaintiff, Atkinson Prakash Charan, as one of the company’s heads and stated he had amassed a $35 million fortune from the vocational education business. In short, it suggested that, “whilst under his management, VET organisations acted unscrupulously, in breach of regulatory standards, and that he made a large amount of money as a result of that conduct” (para 2). Mr Charan had in fact left the company about a year earlier and The Australian the next day published a correction to that effect in its print edition and later an online apology for the error.

Law

The plaintiff pleaded eight imputations arose from the article, which the judge grouped into four headings:

  1. Mr Charan was head of ACN, a company which engaged in unscrupulous business practices that took advantage of vulnerable consumers

  2. Mr Charan was head of ACN, a company which engaged in misleading and deceptive conduct.

  3. Charan was head of ACN, which engaged in unscrupulous door-to-door marketing practices to vulnerable consumers

  4. Mr Charan [as head of] ACN carried on a business which was significantly non-compliant with quality standards (para 27).

The defendant Nationwide News – publisher of The Australian – argued successfully that imputations 2 and 3 did not arise and defended the imputations of unscrupulous business practices and significant noncompliance with quality standards successfully using the justification defence by proving that the imputations were substantially true as required under section 25 of the Defamation Act 2005. To prove the unscrupulous conduct allegations it had to convince the court under the civil burden of proof – the ‘balance of probabilities’ – that there was ‘clear and cogent proof’. To do so it drew upon a host of material obtained after the publication, including:

(a) the oral testimony of a number of witnesses who had worked in the CTI group;

(b) the oral testimony of three “students” allegedly enrolled in CTI courses conducted by CTI companies;

(c) the contents of a series of audit reports, student interviews and file reviews (with associated documentation) of CTT and AMA, carried out in 2015 under the instructions of DET; and

(d) a large number of emails and associated documents flowing to and from Mr Charan and other officers or employees of the CTI companies” (para 77).

The latter included records of phone calls and messages subpoenaed from Mr Charan’s telephone service provider Telstra.

Justice Forrest found the plaintiff was ‘was an entirely unreliable witness, not only on this issue but as to all matters relevant to his claim’ (para 111). He concluded with a concise summary of his 768 paragraph judgment:

(a) Mr Charan was defamed in both the written and online versions of the article;

(b) the article defamed him by conveying imputations that:

(1) Mr Charan managed a VET organisation which engaged in unscrupulous business practices which took advantage of vulnerable consumers which resulted in him making a large amount of money; and

(2) Mr Charan managed a VET organisation which was significantly non-compliant with quality standards

I am satisfied that Nationwide has established the substantial truth of both imputations. (paras 762 -763).

Lessons for professional communicators

Several lessons arise from this rare but successful use of the justification (truth) defence by a publisher:

  • Considerable evidence can be required to prove the truth of imputations stemming from an article, and sometimes this has to be located after the reporting and publishing process has finished, although as much evidence as possible should be available at the time of publication;
  • A publisher defendant can still win a case on the pleaded imputations even if there is basic error in the story – in this case the fact that Mr Charan had not been formally involved with the management of the company for a year. (Of course, such errors should normally be avoided).;
  • Defamation cases can be enormously expensive. In this case the 35-day trial was reported to have cost both side mores than $3.5 million in legal fees (Duke and Vedelago, 2018)

Disclaimer: While I write about media law and ethics, nothing here should be construed as legal advice. I am an academic, not a lawyer. My only advice is that you consult a lawyer before taking any legal risks.

© Mark Pearson 2018

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Media law for local government communications officers

By MARK PEARSON

A host of media laws might arise in the work of local government communications and media relations personnel, as I explained to a team from a large council recently.

With councils hosting inquiries and debates among ratepayers on social media platforms, and some even publishing their own news products to supplement a weaker suburban and regional media sector, they are facing many of the same media law risks that journalists encounter in their work.

These include defamation, contempt, breach of confidence, privacy, freedom of information/right to information, intellectual property and discrimination laws among others.

Yet while the news media have been described by some as “not just another business” because of their Fourth Estate role in a democracy, councils are clearly “not just another publisher” because of the special role local government plays in our political system.

A news organ published by the communications department of a local government body faces epistemological questions about their purpose and responsibilities which, in turn, feed into media laws and their defences.

A central question is: “Whose interests should come first, the citizen-ratepayer’s or the council’s?”

The reality is that most topics covered – such as extended library hours and the Carols in the Park coverage – would not trigger a dilemma here.

But push comes to shove when citizens are strongly critical of a council, its officers or its elected representatives over a decision or a proposal.

This is where the editor of any council-owned news organ and the moderator of comments on its social media feed face this fundamental dilemma over who is their real master – which in turn can feed into their position on several media law issues, most notably about whether defamation defences might be defeated by a lack of good faith or a perceived bias.

But there are also fundamental issues over the extent to which councils can shackle both the common law right to free expression and of course the implied freedom to communicate on matters of politics and government – both clarified in relation to local government bylaws by the High Court in Attorney-General (South Australia) v Corporation of the City of Adelaide (2013) 249 CLR 1.

While that case found Adelaide Council’s restrictions on preaching in Rundle Mall were a reasonable restriction on those freedoms, the decision prompts questions about other restrictions some councils may exercise upon their staff and elected officers.

Some, for example, have banned councilors from speaking publicly against decisions of their councils by narrowly interpreting some provisions of local government acts.

Early in 2017 the Redland City Council in Brisbane was criticized by the Queensland Ombudsman for threatening two citizens with defamation action over alleged defamatory comments about council, council officers and the Mayor, Karen Williams on social media websites. Legal letters from the Council demanded the complainants remove their comments and post apologies. The Ombudsman concluded the threats were not a reasonable or proportional response to what was relatively minor criticism of council’s decisions and were an unreasonable expenditure of public funds. He recommended training for councils in defamation law.

There are many other areas of the law beyond media laws that are likely to impact on local government media relations and communications personnel – both because of their public relations role and because of their function as part of the third tier of government.

These might include contract law, negligence, professional liability, HR law, whistleblower legislation and a host of regulations and common law obligations over transparency in council processes.

The recommendation by Queensland’s Ombudsman that council officers need training in defamation could well be extended to numerous media laws and several other legal and regulatory restrictions.

Disclaimer: While I write about media law and ethics, nothing here should be construed as legal advice. I am an academic, not a lawyer. My only advice is that you consult a lawyer before taking any legal risks.

© Mark Pearson 2017

 

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Filed under citizen journalism, contempt of court, free expression, journalism, local government, media ethics, media law, Media regulation, social media, sub judice