Category Archives: free expression

Be wary of the legal risks of a media conference

By MARK PEARSON

Press conferences might seem fairly straightforward opportunities for a source or client to get their side of the story across, but they can have considerable legal risks attached.

We explore these situations in the forthcoming sixth edition of The Journalist’s Guide to Media Law (Allen & Unwin, 2019) and I share some of those here.

Words uttered at media conferences in Adelaide and Perth were at the centre of defamation actions in 2012 and 2017. In the Nightclub case, a Hindley Street nightclub owner called a press conference to announce an initiative to increase public safety and reduce violence in the central Adelaide precinct. Almost two years later, he sued a neighbouring travel agency operator over a statement he alleged she had uttered in the midst of that media conference. He claimed the travel agency owner had announced loudly to the media gathered at the conference that he—the nightclub owner—was responsible for all the violence in Hindley Street. After hearing from several witnesses (including the nightclub’s public relations consultant), the District Court judge found for the defendant. He said it was more likely the interjector had not made such a blatant defamatory allegation against the nightclub owner and, even if she had, he would only have awarded $7500 in damages. There was no evidence of a recording having been made of the words she had spoken.

However, words spoken by a detective in a media conference resulted in Western Australia’s highest award of defamation damages in 2017. Detective Senior Sergeant Jack Lee had described Perth barrister Lloyd Rayney as the ‘prime’ and ‘only’ suspect in widely broadcast press conferences about the investigation into his wife Corryn’s 2007 murder (Barrister’s wife case, 2017). Rayney was acquitted of her murder in 2012 in one of the state’s highest profile cases. He then proceeded to sue the state over the detective’s comments in those media conferences back in 2007 and won $2.623 million in damages. The Western Australian Supreme Court held that the state should not qualify for the qualified privilege defence because Detective Lee had gone far beyond what was appropriate in the circumstances with which he was confronted, and, especially having regards to the seriousness of the offence being investigated and the obvious professional damage that loose language would inflict on Mr Rayney (para. 165). Errors and misstatements meant the detective had not exercised reasonable care in his responses to questions, losing the statutory qualified privilege defence, and went beyond a police officer’s duty to keep the public informed, thus forfeiting the common law qualified privilege defence (para. 173). (The quantum of damages may be subject to appeal.)

This followed the line of reasoning by the South Australian Supreme Court’s Full Court when it rejected the SA Police use of the qualified privilege defence in a defamation case brought by a former newspaper photographer who was a suspect in a murder (Murder suspect case, 2015). The court held that a media release and a press conference hosted by police ‘fell wholly outside the interest or duty of the police to provide information necessary to obtain such assistance from the public as may potentially be available and outside the interest of members of the public to receive such information’. There was no public interest to be served by police going into the details of the crime or the state of their investigation or the fact of their suspicions at that time in relation to the suspect (at paras 437–8).

The NSW Supreme Court held in the Councillor’s case (2017) that giving an interview to a journalist or hosting a press conference renders whoever is speaking responsible for any defamatory material conveyed in that interview or press conference because they ‘both intended its republication and understood it would be republished, either in whole or in part’ (at para. 64). The court ruled that, ‘In the circumstances of a press conference, or interview by the press, express authority or a request to publish is not necessary’ (at para. 65).

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

Social media developments have legal implications and require a new literacy

By MARK PEARSON

Every new development in Internet and social media communication renders countless new people ‘publishers’ –  exposed to risky media law situations they might never have anticipated. 


Advances in communication technology in this new millennium have redefined the ways in which most of us share news and information. Industry upheaval and technological disruption have prompted many journalists to retool as bloggers, public relations consultants, multimedia producers and social media editors.

These roles add exciting new dimensions to journalism and strategic communications—including conversations and engagement with audiences and instant global publishing at the press of a button. But they also present new legal risks that most professional communicators – and even ordinary citizens – did not envisage in the twentieth century.

The changes have been so profound that they have impacted the ways we live and organise our lives and work practices. It is only when we review some of the milestones of the internet and Web 2.0, together with the legal and regulatory changes they have prompted, that we start to appreciate the need for all professional communicators to be knowledgeable about media law.

While the worldwide connection of computers, giving rise to the phenomenon we know as the internet, dates back to the early 1980s, it did not start to impact the lives of ordinary citizens until the mid-1990s. Melbourne’s Age newspaper became one of the first in the world to offer an online edition in 1995 (van Niekerk, 2005). Over the ensuing years, entrepreneurs started to embrace the commercial potential of the World Wide Web, just as consumers began to use it to source products and services, and students began to engage with it as an educational tool—predominantly from their desktop computers.

By the end of 2016, there were approximately 13.5 million internet subscribers in Australia (ABS, 2017). It was not until August 2003 that the first major social networking platform, MySpace, was launched in California. It was the leading social networking site in the world from 2005 until 2008, when it was surpassed in popularity by Facebook, which by 2017 had almost two billion monthly users, including 15 million in Australia (Media Watch, 2017). In the six months to June 2016, 93 per cent of internet users aged 18 to 24 used social networking sites (ACMA, 2016:  58). Streaming of entertainment and news has also become part of daily life.

In June 2016, 39 per cent of Australian adults had watched Netflix in the previous seven days, while 27 per cent had watched professional content on YouTube and 16 per cent had viewed the pay television service Foxtel (ACMA, 2016: 82). In the United States by 2017, six out of ten young adults were primarily using online streaming to watch television (Rainie, 2017). Associated with this was the remarkable uptake of the mobile telephone and other devices. The iPhone was only launched in 2007, but by 2016 more than three-quarters of Australians owned a smartphone (ACMA, 2016: 18). The iPad was born in mid-2010 into a market segment that many experts thought did not exist, but by 2016 more than half of Australians used or owned a tablet device (ACMA, 2016: 55).

Even more technologies are unfolding rapidly, with implications for both the media and the law, with the increasing use of drone devices for news-gathering purposes and the awe-inspiring Internet of Things (IoT), where everyday devices are all interconnected, offering novel news-gathering and delivery systems for the media but also complex legal ramifications—particularly in the realm of privacy and security law.

Governments, courts and other regulators have been forced to decide on the various rights and interests affected by these new media forms, and some of their decisions have taken private enterprise by surprise. It is a far more difficult task, however, to educate the broader community about social media legal risks.

The core message is that we are all publishers in the eyes of the law when we publish a blog or post to a social media platform, and in that role all citizens are subject to the same laws that have affected journalists and publishers for centuries.

Further, the instantaneous and global nature of the media means that we may also be the subject of foreign laws of countries other than Australia—particularly if we work for a multinational corporation, or choose to travel to, or have had material we wrote downloaded in, a place where our posts might have broken the law or infringed upon someone’s rights. These laws include defamation, contempt of court, intellectual property, confidentiality, privacy, discrimination and national security.

All this makes a strong argument for greater social media literacy among professional communicators and the wider community.

[Excerpted from Pearson, M. and Polden, M. (2019, 6th edition, forthcoming). The Journalist’s Guide to Media Law. A Legal Handbook for Digital Communicators. (Allen & Unwin, Sydney).]

References

Australian Associated Press (AAP) 2017, ‘Changes to media ownership laws’, SBS, 14 September, <www.sbs.com.au/news/article/2017/09/14/changes-media-ownership-laws>.

Australian Bureau of Statistics] 2017, Internet Activity, Australia, December 2016, cat. no. 8153, ABS, Canberra, <www.abs.gov.au/ausstats/abs@.nsf/mf/8153.0>.

Australian Communications and Media Authority] 2016, Communications Report 2015–2016. ACMA, Sydney, <www.acma.gov.au/theACMA/Library/researchacma/Research-reports/communications-report-2015-16>.

van Niekerk, M. 2005, ‘Online to the future’, The Age, 28 January, <www.theage.com.au/news/National/Online-to-the-future/2005/01/27/1106415726255.html>.


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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Filed under blogging, defamation, free expression, journalism, journalism education, media ethics, media law, mindful journalism, online education, reflective practice, social media, terrorism

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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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.

Institutional users Login to access article

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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Filed under courts, defamation, free expression, media law, Press freedom

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 existential 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

Reporting upon forensic mental health cases and identifying patients

By MARK PEARSON

What are the key policy factors influencing courts and tribunals attempting to balance open justice against other rights and interests in newsworthy cases involving forensic mental health patients? 

Associate Professor Tom Morton from UTS, ABC lawyer Hugh Bennett and I examined this question – and the related issue of whether the media could report upon such cases and identify the patients involved – in our recent article in the leading journal in the field, the Journal of Media Law.

Citation: Mark Pearson, Tom Morton & Hugh Bennett (2017): ‘Mental health and the media: a comparative case study in open justice’, Journal of Media Law, DOI: 10.1080/17577632.2017.1375261

Here is our conclusion:

Open justice in mental health proceedings need not be viewed in a vacuum. There are strong parallels with numerous other situations where the legislature and the courts find and apply exceptions to the open justice principle. There is much scope for consistency across Australian jurisdictions and across the many situations where the restrictions are in place because of different vulnerabilities faced by key participants in the court process – mental health patients, children, sexual crime victims, family law parties, protected witnesses and, in two Australian states, even those accused of sexual offences until after the committal stage of proceedings.

There is a strong argument that the courts should be most transparent when the public gaze is so sharply focussed upon them, and that public education about the workings of the justice system in the important area of mental health will be most effective when citizens are intrigued by a particular story and know its background. The courts might acknowledge that in some circumstances a story can be both “interesting to the public” and “in the public interest” – and that perhaps the two notions might not have to be mutually exclusive as Lord Wilberforce so famously suggested.

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We compared four forensic mental health cases in Australia and the UK and highlighted some of the key competing rights and interests at stake when the news media or other parties seek to have mental health proceedings opened and to identify the patients involved. The approaches of the tribunals and courts we  studied showed the competing policy considerations in such applications were by no means clear-cut. They varied markedly from case to case with regards to the potential impact on the patient and other stakeholders and in their respective public interest value in the stories being told to broader communities. Policies around publicity are complicated when expert psychiatric opinion varies on the potential impact on the mental health and treatment regime for the patient.

The weighing of such important rights and interests is not a precise science where a pre-set formula will apply. Of course, important differences between Australian and UK jurisdictions inform such decisions, including different statutory frameworks for the particular tribunals, together with the lack of a formal human rights framework in Australia, comparable with the European Convention on Human Rights, which affords privacy and free expression rights. In Australia, these considerations draw upon the common law, because there is as yet no actionable tort of privacy invasion and free expression is limited to a High Court-designed implied constitutional freedom of communication with respect to “discussion of government and political matters”. Further, the various mental health tribunals dealing with applications from or regarding forensic patients operate within their own statutory frameworks, rules and practice directions which sometimes bind, and in other circumstances guide, their decisions on whether hearings can be held in public and, if so, whether parties and other participants might be identified.

In Australia alone, the nine jurisdictions have taken a variety of approaches to whether such hearings are held in public and whether parties must be anonymised in any reporting permitted. Open justice can be viewed as a policy continuum, ranging from closed hearings and a total ban on reporting at one end through to open hearings with full identification of parties allowed as part of a fair and accurate report of proceedings at the other. Somewhere in between are attempts to strike a balance between open justice and competing rights and interests with partial permissions; where the public or the media might be admitted to proceedings with a range of conditions placed upon the extent of identification of parties or witnesses allowed.

We developed  this list of key policy factors elicited from the cases reviewed, influencing whether a forensic patient or former patient might be given a public hearing or be identified in proceedings:

  1. Specific legislation, regulations, rules and practice directions relating to privacy and anonymity in hearings involving forensic patients or former patients;

  2. Whether there is informed consent from the patient to identification and publicity of his or her case;

  3. The extent to which a public trial and/or identification impacts upon on the life (ECHR Article 2), ill-treatment (ECHR Article 3), liberty (ECHR Article 5), and other rights, dignity and self respect of patients; including the impact of publicity and identification on their mental health and well being, ongoing treatment, safety and ease of re-entry to the community after treatment/rehabilitation;

  4. The impact of a public hearing or identification upon the right to privacy (ECHR Article 8) of the patient and other participants, and the confidentiality of personal medical details;

  5. The historic principle of open justice (ECHR Article 6): fundamental principles of transparency and justice ‘being seen to be done’, as espoused in Scott v. Scott; the public interest in transparency of mental health processes and proceedings;

  6. Freedom of expression and communication (ECHR Article 10); including the freedom of expression of the media, patients and other participants like hospital and prison personnel;

  7. The public’s right to know: public understanding of the mental health system and its treatment of patients; the public interest in knowing the outcome of highly publicised or emblematic cases; the public interest in knowing of wrongdoing in the mental health system; and the public interest in the safety and security of their communities;  

  8. Impact of identification and publicity upon other parties, including hospital staff, other patients, victims and their families;

  9. Public administration costs (economic and organisational) associated with implementing effective systems of publicity and identification. (For example, hospitals’ and courts’ management of media inquiries, extra costs of security for patient, special accommodation for public hearings, expense of installing video links etc);

  10. Stage of the process – for example, publicity and identification might be allowed on early applications related to conditions while institutionalised, but perhaps refused when re-entry to society is imminent or has already passed;

  11. The track record of the applicant media organisation/s in prior coverage and ethical management of privacy and consent issues, in this and perhaps in other comparable cases; the nature of the proposed program or publication and whether it is likely to be of a professional standard, balanced, accurate, reflective of a range of stakeholder views and sensitive to the patient’s experiences; and the context and focus of the identification of the patient in the media output;

  12. Whether a public hearing and/or identification of a patient might risk stigmatising mental illness.

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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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