By MARK PEARSON Follow @Journlaw
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