Category Archives: Press freedom

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.

Full contents of the edition and subscription details can be seen here.

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.

Full contents of the edition and subscription details can be seen here.


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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INFORRM a highly recommended resource for journalists and media law students #MLGriff

By MARK PEARSON

Congratulations to UK-based media law blog INFORRM (INternational Forum for Responsible Media) on reaching an impressive 4 million hits since it started seven years ago.

The site – international but with an understandable UK orientation – boasts more than 5,500 followers including  3,500 on Twitter @inforrm.

INFORRM has just listed its Top Twenty Posts of all time (in descending order of popularity):

From time to time over recent years they have been kind enough to repost my blogs or commentary pieces, including these:

Australia: Whither media reform under Abbott? – Mark Pearson

25 11 2013

Where will the new Liberal-National Coalition government led by Prime Minister Tony Abbott head with the reform of media regulation? Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull and Attorney-General George Brandis were vocal opponents of the former Gillard Government’s proposals to merge press self-regulation with broadcast co-regulation into a new framework.

Read the rest of this entry »

Privacy in Australia – a timeline from colonial capers to racecourse snooping, possum perving and delving drones – Mark Pearson

13 10 2013

Australia MapThe interplay between the Australian media and privacy laws has always been a struggle between free expression and the ordinary citizen’s desire for privacy. I have developed this timeline to illustrate that tension. Read the rest of this entry »

 

Privacy On Parade – Mark Pearson

12 05 2012

The right to privacy is a relatively modern international legal concept. Until the late 19th century gentlemen used the strictly codified practice of the duel to settle their disputes over embarrassing exposés of their private lives.

The first celebrity to convert his personal affront into a legal suit was the author of The Three Musketeers, Alexandre Dumas père, who in 1867 sued a photographer who had attempted to register copyright in some steamy images of Dumas with the ‘Paris Hilton’ of the day – 32-year-old actress Adah Isaacs Menken. Read the rest of this entry »

 

Australia: News Media Council proposal: be careful what you wish for – Mark Pearson

10 03 2012

The Finkelstein (and Ricketson) Independent Media Inquiry report released on 28 February 2012 is a substantial and well researched document with a dangerously flawed core recommendation.

An impressive distillation of legal, philosophical and media scholarship (compulsory reading for journalism students) and worthy recommendations for simpler codes and more sensitivity to the needs of the vulnerable are overshadowed by the proposal that an ‘independent’ News Media Council be established, bankrolled by at least Aus$2 million of government funding annually. Read the rest of this entry »

 

Consumer law holds solution to grossly irresponsible journalism – Mark Pearson

9 11 2011

This post originally appeared on the Australian Journlaw blog.  It suggests an interesting new approach to media regulation which, as far as we know, has not been suggested in debates in this country.  We are reproducing it with permission and thanks to provide a further perspective on those debates.

Australia does not need a media tribunal with regulatory powers to punish ethical transgressions.  It already has one – in the form of the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (“ACCC”). Read the rest of this entry »


… as well as occasional snippets in their useful Law and Media Roundup section and this review of my book Blogging and Tweeting Without Getting Sued by media lawyer Leanne O’Donnell:

Book Review: Mark Pearson “Blogging and Tweeting Without Getting Sued” – Leanne O’Donnell

11 04 2012

Professor Mark Pearson’s Blogging & Tweeting Without Getting Sued will be welcomed by anyone writing online … Melbourne media lawyer Leanne O’Donnell reviews this timely legal guide to a rapidly evolving media landscape

Mark Pearson’s new book Blogging & Tweeting Without Getting Sued: A global guide to the law for anyone writing online – is very accessible guide to laws relevant to the all those writing online. Read the rest of this entry »


I find the INFORRM “Blogroll” is a particularly useful resource – regularly updated and featuring these media law blogs from throughout the world. Together they provide a wonderful resource for media law students, journalists and researchers. (Thanks for including journlaw.com,  INFORRM!)

Surely sufficient bedtime reading for even the most avid media law geek!

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, courts, defamation, free expression, Freedom of Information, intellectual property, journalism, journalism education, media ethics, Media freedom, media law, Media regulation, Press freedom, Privacy, social media, sub judice, suppression, terrorism

Mental health and the media: a comparative case study in open justice

By MARK PEARSON

Our article comparing Australian and UK restrictions on the reporting of forensic mental health cases has appeared 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 abstract:

Media reportage about forensic mental health cases raises several competing rights and interests, including the public interest in open justice; a patient’s right to privacy, treatment and recovery; the public’s right to know about mental health tribunal processes; and victims’ and citizens’ interests in learning the longer term consequences of a publicised serious unlawful act. This article details a case study of successful applications for permission to identify a forensic mental health patient in both a radio documentary and in research blogs and scholarly works in Australia. It compares the authors’ experience in this case with three other cases in Australia and the UK, and identifies and weighs the competing policy issues and principles courts or tribunals consider when attempting to balance open justice with the rights and interests of a range of stakeholders in forensic mental health cases where the news media and/or patients are seeking publicity and/or identification.

Full contents of the edition and subscription details can be seen 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 blogging, citizen journalism, contempt of court, courts, free expression, journalism, media ethics, media law, Media regulation, mental health, open justice, Press freedom, social media, sub judice, suppression, Uncategorized

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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Filed under media law, national security, Press freedom, Privacy, terrorism, Uncategorized

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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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

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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