Category Archives: media law

Changes to drone laws force a rethink of their risks

By MARK PEARSON

Much has changed in the regulatory landscape in the two years since Scottish drones expert Dr David Goldberg and the ABC’s Mark Corcoran addressed a Griffith University seminar on the law and ethics of the media use of drones and graduate student Sam Worboys and I wrote a paper on the topic.

Brisbane lawyer Daniel Popple (Norton Rose Fulbright) updated colleagues at the Law Futures Centre yesterday (April 27) with an engaging seminar titled “Drone regulation in Australia: Opportunity and liability abound in the new regulatory void”.

He explained that the recent deregulation of drones by the Civil Aviation Safety Authority (CASA) meant the recreational use of small drones had minimal restrictions and that it was easier to utilise drones for commercial purposes.

“However, behind this potential sits a complex web of liability which has the ability to catch would-be drone pilots unaware and facing significant fines and potential imprisonment,” Popple said.

He identified a range of laws impacting upon drone use including negligence actions from damage to person or property, radiocommunications and aviation laws, privacy, surveillance devices legislation, trespass or nuisance actions, and work health and safety legislation.

For those who missed the engaging talk, Popple will be speaking again in Brisbane in June as part of a panel of speakers addressing drone regulation.

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© Mark Pearson 2017

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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DEFAMATION CASE UPDATE: Zoef v Nationwide News Pty Ltd – identification and offer of amends appealed #MLGriff

By MARK PEARSON

CASE UPDATE: Zoef v Nationwide News Pty Ltd – 2015, 2016 and 2017

I blogged in 2016 about a case where the mistaken identification of an innocent octogenarian tailor in place of his alleged gun-running son produced a useful case study for media law educators trying to explain the basic elements of defamation.

Indeed, the NSW District Court case of Zoef v Nationwide News Pty Limited & Ors [2015] NSWDC 232 remains an excellent introduction to defamation, although in October 2016 the NSW Court of Appeal overturned the publisher’s defence of “offer of amends” which was originally granted by the lower court, in the appeal case of Zoef v Nationwide News Pty Ltd [2016] NSWCA 283, and awarded the plaintiff $150,000 in damages. The appellant, Mr Tony Zoef, also had a partial victory in a more recent appeal over the backdating of the damages award, costs and interest owing in Zoef v Nationwide News Pty Ltd (No 2) [2017] NSWCA 2.

The first appeal is useful for educators explaining identification issues in defamation and the “offer of amends” defence requirements under s 18 of the Defamation Act 2005 (NSW) (Defamation Act) – and its equivalent in other Australian jurisdictions – while the 2017 appeal holds little value for media law teachers.

The case centred upon an article published in The Daily Telegraph on 22 August 2013.

It appeared a relatively straightforward case of confused identity, where the reporter mistakenly attributed to the older Mr Zoef – a suburban Sydney tailor – the alleged crimes of his son who lived at the same address. At trial, the sole basis on which Mr Zoef’s claim was dismissed was the newspaper’s defence that Mr Zoef had failed unreasonably to accept its offer of amends.

The article in the Telegraph (22-8-13, p. 9) carried the heading “Tailor’s alter ego as a gunrunner”, which might also make an interesting topic of discussion for students around the issue of sub judice contempt: Does such a heading carry a presumption of the accused’s guilt when accompanying a report of a preliminary court appearance? [The article in question is attached to the judgment as a pdf file.]

The article portrayed a then 81-year-old suburban tailor (with a distinctive surname ‘Zoef’) as a gun-runner who had been arrested, charged and appeared in court facing charges related to him holding a huge cache of weapons and ammunition at his home.

Police had indeed raided his premises and had found weapons and ammunition in the house’s garage, occupied by the tailor’s 43-year-old son, who shared his father’s name and was the actual individual who had appeared in court facing those charges.

As I blogged in 2016, the trial judgment by District Court Judge Leonard Levy is a fascinating one for student discussion because several basic concepts in defamation were contested and resolved, including:

  • imputations – how they are worded and presented
  • the misidentification’s impact on the plaintiff’s relationships, business and emotional state
  • the question of identification and case law establishing the extent of defamation of a second person with the same name and address as the first [*** considered on appeal].
  • whether a claim for defamation will hold when some other identifying factors do not match one of the named individuals. [In this case, while the headline identified the plaintiff as a tailor, the article featured a small photograph of his 43 year old son and mentioned the younger man’s age]. [*** considered on appeal].
  • whether the defences of a fair report of proceedings of public concern could apply when there were serious inaccuracies in the article
  • whether an offer of amends had been reasonable and whether it had been accepted by the plaintiff [***the trial judge’s decision which was subsequently overturned on appeal].

The trial judge had held that, despite the serious errors in the reporting of the story and a dispute over whether the publisher’s offer of amends was reasonable and had been withdrawn, the newspaper was entitled to the offer of amends defence.

In the leading appeal judgment, Justice Fabian Gleeson stated:

Taking into account the seriousness of the defamatory imputations and the significant hurt they caused the appellant, the damage to his business as a tailor, the unequal prominence the respondent afforded to the proposed correction and apology and their resultant inadequacy, the modest monetary component of the offer, and the likelihood of the proceedings being successful, the offer of amends was not reasonable. His Honour was in error in finding to the contrary and upholding the respondent’s defence under s 18 of the Defamation Act. (at para 78).

His reasons for that decision involved a step-by-step appraisal of the offer of amends defence and thus make useful instructional material for educators wanting to explain this defence to students. It should also serve to remind journalists that the offer of amends is very much a ‘lawyers’ defence’ – not something that should be handled by journalists or editors independent of legal advice – and given its time constraints it means that counsel from lawyers on the efficacy and wording of any such offer should be sought promptly.

The publisher also challenged the trial judge’s findings on whether the plaintiff had been identified in the article when it carried a photograph of his son and stated his age as 43 years old.

The Court of Appeal affirmed the trial judge’s decision that Mr Zoef Sr had been identified in the article despite those countering factors. Justice Gleeson ruled:

The article in this case contained a prominent and sensational headline, which, when read together with the first paragraph (par 29), would be reasonably understood to refer to the appellant. The strength of the general impression thereby created surpasses and dominates that of the subsequent reference in par 30 to a “43 year old” which is not something the ordinary reasonable reader might be expected to have focused on, let alone re-read or reviewed. It lacked the prominence of the sensational headline and the focus on the local, relatable indicia of the identified person’s name, profession and locality in the foregoing paragraph.

In respect of the photograph, his Honour’s finding that it was “immaterial” is supported by three considerations. One is that the photograph was small, cropped, and, as his Honour found, “less than distinct”. Next, the appellant gave unchallenged evidence in cross-examination that his son was not known to his customers. No identification would therefore have been made on a visual basis by the appellant’s customers. Finally, the use of historical photographs in newspaper articles is not so uncommon as to render unreasonable a conclusion by the ordinary reasonable reader that the article (with an unfamiliar photo) referred yet to the appellant. (paras 159-160).

So there you have it. The Zoef case – both at trial and on appeal – holds valuable lessons for media law students and educators are encouraged to use it as a case study. I have done so successfully with both journalists and tertiary students.

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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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Filed under blogging, contempt of court, courts, defamation, free expression, media ethics, Media freedom, media law, Press freedom, sub judice, suppression, Uncategorized

Press Council launches Reconciliation Action Plan and welcomes Koori Mail to fold

By MARK PEARSON

The Australian Press Council has launched its first Reconciliation Action Plan (RAP) and welcomed the first indigenous newspaper, the Koori Mail, to its membership after a symbolic ceremony at the National Centre for Indigenous Excellence in Redfern, Sydney.

Journalist and Reconciliation Australia board member Kirstie Parker launches the Reconciliation Action Plan as APC Chair David Weisbrot looks on.

The Reconciliation Action Plan documents the objectives and strategies the press self-regulator vows to employ over the next two years to promote understanding and reconciliation between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians.

Launching the plan was former journalist Kirstie Parker – a Yuwallarai woman from NSW, board member of Reconciliation Australia and former editor of the Koori Mail (@koorimailnews).

She is now CEO of the National Centre of Indigenous Excellence (NCIE).

She congratulated the Press Council on its Reconciliation Action Plan.

“You have grasped that Aboriginal representation in media extends beyond media outlets to representation on the adjudicatory body, the Australian Press Council,” she said.

She noted the Council had recognized “the importance of Aboriginal voices in media; of managers, editors, producers, journalists framing our stories our way.”

“I cannot emphasise enough the importance of Aboriginal representation in media has been high on our agenda since the 1970s when the first community controlled Aboriginal media outlets formed,” Ms Parker said.

“That the Koori Mail – the most respected and successful Aboriginal newspaper in Australia – is now the first black media member of the APC is no accident. Media outlets come and go, I don’t have to tell you it’s a cutthroat and ever-shrinking business.”

“The Koori Mail’s longevity is a result of strong leadership, in strong roots, with a strong sense of purpose and a strong commitment to our stories and our culture.

“The paper has never given up on that and you have a lot to learn from them, your newest member.”

The Press Council’s draft RAP was endorsed after review by Reconciliation Australia.

The Chair of the Press Council, Professor David Weisbrot, explained the challenge was to implement the plans ‘fully and effectively’.

The Press Council’s RAP commits the organisation to:

•   encouraging membership by Indigenous newspapers, magazines and online news and current affairs sites;

•   engaging and consulting with Indigenous groups, individuals and organisations regarding the Press Council’s work;

•   promoting employment and internship opportunities for Indigenous people at the Press Council and among member publications;

•   promoting Indigenous cultural competence among staff;

•   considering the impact on Indigenous peoples of current and proposed Standards of Practice;

•   encouraging the Australian news media to report issues of importance for Indigenous communities in a respectful way; and

•   endeavouring to promote high quality reporting in relation to Indigenous peoples.

The Australian Press Council was established in 1976 and is responsible for promoting good standards of media practice, community access to information of public interest, and freedom of expression through the media. Press Council membership encompasses over 900 mastheads, accounting for approximately 95 per cent of newspaper, magazine and online readership in Australia.

Read the Press Council’s Reconciliation Action Plan here.

[I attended the ceremony as a member of the Griffith Centre for Social and Cultural Research which has a strong record of research into indigenous media.]

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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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Filed under free expression, journalism, journalism education, media ethics, media law, Media regulation, Uncategorized

Is an Open Justice Advocate the solution to overly restrictive suppression orders? #MLGriff

By MARK PEARSON

Jason Bosland [@JasonBosland] – Deputy Director of the Centre for Media and Communications Law at Melbourne Law School – has called for the introduction of a state-funded Open Justice Advocate as a measure to alleviate the continuing practice of judges issuing overly restrictive suppression orders.

Bosland’s explanatory article in Pursuit and his research article the Sydney Law Review come just as we are about to examine open justice and court restrictions in our Griffith University Media Law course, so they are essential reading for students.

He is the acknowledged leader in the field of suppression order scholarship in Australia and his work tracked firstly the need for the Open Courts Act 2013 in Victoria and, more recently, its failings to impact effectively on court practices.

Bosland writes in the Pursuit article:

This leads to a critical question: who is going to protect the fundamental principle of open justice if the courts themselves are not as vigilant as they should be and if the media are increasingly unable or unwilling to intervene? It is my view that the only solution is for the introduction of a state funded open justice advocate.

His longer Sydney Law Review is an expert combination of insightful policy analysis, meticulous scrutiny of the legislation, and illuminating statistics drawn from his funded research projects on the topic. I commend them to all media law geeks and students.

His concludes that article with this wise counsel:

This state of affairs is clearly unsatisfactory. The solution, however, is not to be found in further legislative reform of the courts’ powers. Rather, attention should be directed towards further professional and judicial education, and the development of a range of suitable model orders. Furthermore, a scheme facilitating the appearance of contradictors in suppression order applications — such as the Open Courts Act Duty Barrister Scheme introduced at the instigation of the Chief Justice — is likely to improve current practices. However, it will only be truly effective in solving the problems identified in the present study if it can be extended to all courts.

Insightful indeed.

[See also – my article in The Conversation on how the 2015 edition of our textbook inadvertently breached a Victorian suppression order and had to be reprinted.]

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 blogging, citizen journalism, contempt of court, free expression, journalism, media ethics, media law, Media regulation, social media, sub judice

Lessons for us all in $300k Yahoo!7 fine for contempt [updated]

By MARK PEARSON

Most Australian followers of this blog will have seen in the news that Yahoo!7 has been fined $300,000 for sub judice contempt over a publication which triggered the discharge of a jury in a Victorian murder trial.

The relatively inexperienced online journalist who wrote and uploaded the story to the organisation’s news site (without attending the court case on which she was reporting) escaped with a two year good behaviour bond, but Supreme Court Justice John Dixon noted the impact upon her of the media coverage and public shaming.

The main problem with her story was that it included excerpts from the victim’s social media accounts indicating the accused had a history of violence towards her and that she feared for her life – prejudicial evidence of which the jury was unaware.

This was enough for Dixon J. to rule:

“I find that the conduct of the respondents in publishing the article during the trial of an accused on a murder charge was conduct in contempt of court. I am satisfied beyond reasonable doubt that the publication, objectively and as a matter of practical reality, had a real and definite tendency to prejudice the trial of the accused.” (2016 judgment, para 3).

As university classes resume for the new academic year, it is timely to consider the lessons of the sorry episode for journalists and journalism students, educators and media organisations.

The two judgments – the conviction in 2016 and the sentencing in 2017 – deserve careful examination by all. Here are the take-home messages for us all:

Journalists and Journalism students

According to her LinkedIn page, the journalist was a graduate of a one year broadcast journalism program in 2013 and had since worked at modeling, sales, and internships as a television producer before gaining her position with Yahoo!7 as morning news producer in June 2015, just over a year prior to the offending story.

No doubt some basics of media law would have been covered in that institution’s media law course as they are in tertiary journalism programs throughout Australia. However, just because a student passes a media law subject with a mark of more than 50% does not mean he or she has learned and remembered every key topic covered.

If you are a student about to embark on a media law course you must realize that the consequences for failing to remember and apply the key elements of media law in your workplace can cost you your professional reputation, many times your annual salary in fines or damages awards, and even your liberty in the form of a jail term.

This means media law is way too important to undertake with that common student approach of “passes build degrees”. You need to read your textbooks and assigned readings, review them, view and engage in other recommended learning materials and tools, grapple with learning problems – and set your mind to keep up to date with developments in each of the media law topic areas. In other words, you need to make media law your passion and hobby if you are to have a good chance of staying out of trouble with the law.

That goes for working journalists as well as students. My experience in training working journalists is that most have forgotten the basic principles of defamation and contempt they learned at university or in training courses many years prior.

As for content, the key lesson from this case is that while a criminal trial is pending or in progress you should only report what has been stated in court in the presence of the jury. Dixon J. summed up the basic principles of sub judice contempt particularly well at para 24 of the 2016 trial:

(a) All contempt of court proceedings involve circumstances where there has been an interference with the due administration of justice;

(b) The law is concerned with the tendency of the matter published in the risk created by its publication.[3] It is unnecessary to prove that a juror or potential juror actually read or heard the prejudicial material;[4]

(c) The test for liability for sub judice contempt is whether the published material has, as a matter of practical reality, a real and definite tendency to prejudice or embarrass particular legal proceedings or interfere with the due administration of justice in the particular proceeding;[5]

(d) The tendency is to be ‘determined objectively by reference to the nature of the publication and it is not relevant for this purpose to determine what the actual effect of the publication on the proceedings has been or what it probably will be. If the publication is of a character which might have an effect upon the proceedings, it will have the necessary tendency, unless the possibility of interference is so remote or theoretical that the de minimis principle should be applied’;[6]

(e) The tendency is to be determined at the time of the publication;[7]

(f) Publication on the internet occurs when the material is uploaded onto the internet;[8]

(g) Proof of an intention of the contemnor to interfere with or obstruct the administration of justice is not a necessary element to be proved;[9]

(h) It is not relevant to consider the actual effect of the publication. Regard is had to the nature and content of the publication and to the circumstances in which it occurred;[10]

(i) Publishing or broadcasting material that is inadmissible before a jury may have the necessary tendency to prejudice an accused’s right to a fair trial;[11]

(j) It is an elementary principle in the administration of criminal justice that, apart from exceptional cases, usually defined by statute, the bad character or prior convictions of an accused cannot be put before the jury on a trial;[12]

(k) The law sets its face against trial by prejudice and innuendo. The principle that the prosecution may not adduce evidence, tending to show that an accused person has been guilty of other criminal acts or has a propensity to violent behaviour, for the purpose of leading to the conclusion that he is a person likely to have committed the offence with which he is charged is deeply rooted and jealously guarded;[13]

(l) The weight and importance of the various factors that will be material in assessing the circumstances of publication will vary from case to case. Broadly speaking, the more important factors will include the following: the content of the publication; the nature of the proceedings liable to be affected, whether they are civil or criminal proceedings and whether at the time of publication they are pending at the committal, trial or appellate stage; the persons to whom the publication is addressed; and finally, the likely durability of the influence of the publication on its audience;[14]

He continued:

Para 25: For centuries, a ‘golden rule’ has been observed by journalists and publishers that while proceedings are being tried before the courts, information that is not admitted as evidence before the jury is not reported or published to prevent the possibility that the jury is influenced by prejudicial, extraneous, or irrelevant information. The rationale is well understood. In 1811, Lord Ellenborough stated in R v Fisher:[18]

“If anything is more important than another in the administration of justice, it is that jurymen should come to the trial of those persons on whose guilt or innocence they are to decide, with minds pure and unprejudiced’.”

Para 26: More recently, in 1985, Watkins LJ in Peacock v London Weekend Television[19] reaffirmed the balance between a fair trial and media reporting:

“In our land we do not allow trial by television or newspaper. Until the well-recognised institution of this country for the doing of justice, namely the courts, have worked their course, then the hand of the writer and the voice of the broadcaster must be still.”

Para 27: The rule is well understood by journalists through their education and is communicated to journalists by the court. The court’s website has a guide ‘Covering the Courts’[20] that stresses the importance of not disclosing material that is kept from a jury:

“Remember the golden rule: do not report anything said in the absence of the jury.

Advice: study, understand and remember these basic principles and you might avoid the fate of this Yahoo!7 reporter.

Journalism Educators

Much as we would like to believe otherwise, we all secretly know that this Yahoo!7 journalist could have been any one of our graduates in the modern news media environment.

24/7 rolling deadlines, staffing shortages, acute competition, minimal on the job training, combined with the rookie’s urge to prove themselves in a tough occupation mean that shortcuts are taken, mistakes are made, and much of the knowledge gained doing highly caffeinated swatting for media law exams has long since exited the memory banks.

This case is a clarion call to us to revisit our curricula and pedagogies and implement the latest learning and teaching techniques to “scaffold” and “deepen” our learning.

My recent experience has been that a combination of problem-based learning, formative quizzes, and end of semester problem scenarios seem to be far superior to the traditional end of semester sit-down exam of yesteryear. Add to the mix student discussion of cases and law reforms as they unfold, along with the embedding of some key media law revision in other subjects, and you gain confidence that the key principles will be learned and remembered in the news room – an exercise in genuine “mindful journalism” or “reflection-in-action”.

Media organisations

The halcyon era for media law training in news organisations was 1990-1994 with the operation of the Keating Government’s training guarantee levy – an obligation on corporations to spend 1.5% of their payroll on structured training courses. Back then regional journalists, for example, received up to five full days of media law training as part of their award and could not be promoted without being certified that they had undertaken it. From memory, it consisted of two days of defamation training, one day on contempt, another on court reporting, and the final on a mixed bag of other media law topics.

If they are lucky, journalists today might get a couple of hours every year or so of a media law briefing from a lawyer, on the strong (and usually false) assumption that they already know most of it from their university degrees.

In his 2017 sentencing judgment, Dixon J. found serious shortcomings in Yahoo!7’s training and workplace protocols justified the $300,000 fine:

“Para 26: I infer that the contemptuous publication likely occurred, at least in part, as a consequence of inadequate resourcing, driven by profit or commercial motivations. Conduct by media organisations that contributes to the risk of sub judice contempt in pursuit of a profit motive must be strongly discouraged.”

He was skeptical about the sustainability of the company’s assurances that it now had new systems in place to train journalists, assign extra editorial staff to manage the workload, and to engage external lawyers to assess court stories.

“Para 27: I can find no feeling of comfort that, should the profit motive rear its head in the future, Yahoo!7 (and other media organisations) will continue to incur expense to maintain systems and procedures that protect the integrity of court processes.”

“Para 30: The arrangements about legal advice before articles are uploaded to the internet appear clumsy, unrealistic in some respects, and may prove more difficult to enforce in practice, given time constraints and their importance in the business model being employed by Yahoo!7”.

One can only hope that all of those stakeholders – students, journalists, educators and media organisations – pay heed to those important lessons the learned judge has so eloquently expressed.

UPDATE: Court copycats caught out. ABC Media Watch exposes how some news organisations lift court reports from their competitors – an unethical practice with major legal pitfalls. View here.

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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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Filed under contempt of court, free expression, journalism, journalism education, media ethics, media law, Media regulation, mindful journalism, Press freedom, Uncategorized

Book review: Hong Kong Media Law

By MARK PEARSON

[First published in Media and Arts Law Review (LexisNexis) in (2016) 21 MALR 119].

Book review

Hong Kong Media Law: A Guide for Journalists and Media Professionals

By Doreen Weisenhaus, with contributions by Rick Glofcheski and Yan Mei Ning (Hong Kong University Press, 2nd ed, 2014) 480 pp. ISBN 9789888208098.

Mark Pearson

hkmedialawcoverMost authors of media law texts would not expect their books to become important historical reference works for centuries to come.
But that is exactly what I predict will eventuate for the University of Hong Kong’s Doreen Weisenhaus with her Hong Kong Media Law: A Guide for Journalists and Media Professionals, now in its expanded second edition.
Unlike most of our texts explaining the media law in English language jurisdictions, based predominantly on the inevitable evolution of the common law and legislation in countries like the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia and New Zealand, the two editions of this book have captured communication law at that crucial historical juncture two decades after the People’s Republic of China resumed control of Hong Kong.
The compendium is an articulate explanation of media law still largely entrenched in the free expression of a former British colony, with a growing series of riders and consequences both within Hong Kong and for journalists who venture onto the mainland in their reporting and publishing.
For all those reasons, it is as fascinating as it is complex, making sense of a body of diverse laws spanning contrasting legal frameworks, press systems and languages in a unique historical moment.
Weisenhaus (and her contributing authors) have explained this clearly to journalists and students without falling for the temptation of over-simplifying what is undeniably a sophisticated and organic jurisprudence.
She does this by featuring chapters on the usual suspects in a media law text — the legal system, defamation, court reporting and contempt, privacy, access to information, copyright, and obscenity and indecency. Of course, all of those standard chapters also feature key cases and points of difference reflecting Hong Kong’s history, Chinese control, and the region’s cosmopolitan role as the financial hub of Asia.
However, important other chapters have a stronger Chinese influence on reporting the mainland, obscenity and indecency and media regulation in the age of convergence.
Appendices on key statutes and regulations, judicial practice directions, Access to Information, and useful links also feature an appendix by accomplished investigative journalists Chan Pui-king and Vivian Kwok on searching for public records of courts.
The instructional design of the text is also admirable. Each chapter starts with some frequently asked questions on the topic and directions to the section of the chapter where the answer might be found. The key chapters also feature a useful checklist for journalists on the subject at hand, clearly accessible as a quick refresher for a reporter on the run.
All this is enhanced by the author’s accomplished writing style — clear, concise and engaging — reflecting her earlier career as city editor of The New York Times, the first legal editor of The New York Times Magazine and later its law and politics editor, and her earlier stint as editor-in-chief of The National Law Journal.
Weisenhaus is now associate professor and director of the Media Law Project at the University of Hong Kong’s Journalism and Media Studies Centre, a regular panellist on international free expression and media law forums, and contributor to comparative works.
In this book she impresses upon the reader the strong independence of the Hong Kong courts and the entrenched values of media freedom, each under pressure from the same kinds of national security measures confronting journalism in Western democracies combined with special new tensions as Hong Kong continues its adaption to its role as a Special Administrative Region of the People’s Republic of China.
As the author explains in her overview, ‘those winds from the mainland have grown stronger, despite the “one country, two systems” principle that is supposed to govern relations between the mainland and Hong Kong’.
‘Thus, concern persists both within and beyond Hong Kong over the degree of its press freedom and the eventual contour of its media-law landscape, partly because of uncertainty about how much of a role the mainland will have in shaping (if not controlling) it’, she continues.
While the China question dominates thinking about the future of media law in Hong Kong, the problems of government surveillance, interference and downright censorship also worry journalists in Western democracies where press freedom was once valued much more highly.
A reflective reading of this important work by Weisenhaus and her colleagues brings this into sharp focus as we learn to appreciate that we all stand to lose many of our inherited media freedoms unless we find ways to apply a brake to government regulation and intrusion.
In that way, it is not just an important work for Hong Kong students and journalists and Sinophiles, but for all citizens and scholars with an interest in media law as the fine balance between free expression, other rights and the self-interest of states the world over.

© Mark Pearson 2016

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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Identification error leads to a useful case for teaching the basic elements of defamation

**See UPDATE after appeal**

By MARK PEARSON

[research assistance from Virginia Leighton-Jackson]

The morphed identification of an innocent octogenarian tailor and his alleged gun-running son produces a useful case study for teachers and trainers trying to explain the basic elements of defamation.

The NSW District Court case of Zoef v Nationwide News Pty Limited & Ors [2015] NSWDC 232 centred upon an article in Sydney’s Daily Telegraph (22-8-13, p. 9) with the heading “Tailor’s alter ego as a gunrunner”. [The article in question is attached to the judgment as a pdf file.]

The article portrayed an 86-year-old suburban tailor with a distinctive name as a gun-runner who had been arrested, charged and appeared in court facing charges related to him holding a huge cache of weapons and ammunition at his home.

Police had indeed raided his premises and had found weapons and ammunition in the house’s garage, occupied by the tailor’s 43-year-old son, who shared his father’s name and was the actual individual who had appeared in court facing those charges.

The case is a fascinating one for student discussion because several basic concepts in defamation were contested and resolved, including:

  • imputations – how they are worded and presented
  • the misidentification’s impact on the plaintiff’s relationships, business and emotional state
  • the question of identification and case law establishing the extent of defamation of a second person with the same name and address as the first
  • whether a claim for defamation will hold when some other identifying factors do not match one of the named individuals. [In this case, while the headline identified the plaintiff as a tailor, the article featured a small photograph of his 43 year old son and mentioned the younger man’s age].
  • whether the defences of a fair report of proceedings of public concern could apply when there were serious inaccuracies in the article
  • whether an offer of amends had been reasonable and whether it had been accepted by the plaintiff.

On the question of identification, Judge Leonard Levy ruled:

Para 37   …where a plaintiff has actually been named in a defamatory publication it is not necessary for the plaintiff to show that those to whom the material was published knew the plaintiff: Mirror Newspapers Ltd v World Hosts Pty Ltd (1978 – 1979) 141 CLR 632, at 639.

38   Even so, the plaintiff must establish that the defamatory matter should be understood to be referring to him: Consolidated Trust Co Ltd v Browne (1948) 49 SR (NSW) 86, at 91. The determination of that question of identification is not to be decided by a consideration of what the publisher intended: Hutton v Jones [1910] AC 20.

39   In cases where a defamatory publication names one person but another person of the same name has been defamed, this can give rise to more than one claim: Lee v Wilson and Mackinnon (1934) 51 CLR 276, as cited in Australian Defamation Law and Practice, Volume 1, TK Tobin QC, MG Sexton SC, eds, 2003, at [6050].

40   In determining the question of identification, the question is, would a sensible reader reasonably identify the plaintiff as the person defamed: Morgan v Odhams Press Ltd [1971] 1 WLR 1239. …

49   In my view, the combined context … serves to adequately identify the plaintiff….

52   …the article strings together the plaintiff’s name, his profession, the fact that he lives in his home in the Sutherland Shire, and has a business altering the clothes of locals all point strongly to the article mentioning the plaintiff by his name and is sufficient of his personal situation to indicate it was him who was the subject of the article.

53   Those details all follow the sensational headline “Tailor’s alter ego as a gunrunner” thereby making a connection between the plaintiff and the described illegal activity concerning the cache of weapons and ammunition found at the premises.

54   The fact that an unclear undated photograph of Tony Zoef appears in the article (at par 38) is immaterial. The fact the article identifies the age of the person the subject of the article as being a 43 year old does introduce an element of possible confusion (par 30) along with the indistinct photograph (at par 38), but inaccuracy of some details appearing in a newspaper article is not an unknown phenomenon.

55   The salient feature is that the plaintiff was named in the article with sufficient of his personal details to suggest he was thereby identified, although the latter details are not essential to that finding.

56   As the article in question named the plaintiff, in my view thereby identifying him, this forms the basis of his right to bring the proceedings without more being shown by him. The fact that there were two persons at the premises named Tony Zoef is immaterial. Both persons of that name could bring proceedings for defamation in their own names: Lee v Wilson and Mackinnon (1934) 51 CLR 276.

59   …I am nevertheless satisfied that the material complained of should be understood as referring to the plaintiff even though the publisher may not have intended that to be so: Consolidated Trust Co Ltd v Browne (1948) 49 SR (NSW) 86, at 91.

60   I consider that … an ordinary sensible reader would identify the plaintiff as the person the subject of the material complained of because of the specific of his name, profession, and locality as already explained. Such a reader… would not read such a sensational article as the one in question with critical and analytical care.

61   The article would be approached by such a reader with the permissible amount of loose thinking, and that reader would be reasonably entitled to draw the conclusion that the article was referring to the plaintiff, even though there were some elements of confusion such as a less than distinct photograph and a different age mentioned to that of the plaintiff. An ordinary reasonable reader would not necessarily know the plaintiff’s age or his level of interest in matters to do with space. The headline of “Tailor’s alter ego as a gunrunner” would catch the attention of such a reader and permit the general impression of the story being a reference to the plaintiff: Mirror Newspapers Limited v World Hosts Proprietary Limited [1978 – 1979] 141 CLR 632, at p 646; Morgan v Odhams Press Ltd [1971] 1 WLR 1239.

The judge also considered the important question of the impact of headlines:

44   In cases involving headlines, it must be borne in mind that the ordinary reasonable reader will draw conclusions from general impressions when reading the matter complained of. Such general impressions are necessarily formed by the technique of using prominent headlines to communicate the principal message of the publication, and it must be recognised that in that process, such material may diminish the reputations of those affected: Chakravarti v Advertiser Newspapers Limited (1998) 193 CLR 519, at p 575.

A large portion of the judgment centred upon whether a defence of ‘offer of amends’ should be upheld under s 18(1)(c) of the Defamation Act. The judge held that, despite the serious errors in the reporting of the story and a dispute over whether the offer of amends was reasonable and had been withdrawn, the newspaper was entitled to the offer of amends defence.

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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 2016

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