Tag Archives: election

Election postscript: a mindful analysis of media coverage


[This blog was first published in the St James Ethics Centre’s Living Ethics newsletter, Issue 93, Spring 2013. See here.]

Australian journalists operate under an array of ethical guidelines, including the MEAA Code of Ethics and numerous employer and industry codes of practice.

hogansWhile these documents differ widely in their wording, they espouse common values of truth, accuracy, fairness and the public’s right to information. They disapprove of invasions of privacy, disclosure of confidential sources, discriminatory language, subterfuge, deception, plagiarism and conflicts of interest.

When it comes to assessing the ethics of news coverage of an event as broad in scope as a federal election we find some guidance in such codes but other moral frameworks can add value.

Although I am not a Buddhist, I have recently found value in applying some of that religion’s foundational principles – in a secular way – to the assessment of journalism ethics and have been sharing this approach with colleagues and students through my writing and teaching.

It is also a useful lens through which to review some key elements in media coverage of the 2013 federal election.

The approach centres on the belief that journalists can adopt a mindful approach to their news and commentary which requires a reflection upon the implications of their truth-seeking and truth-telling as a routine part of the process. It calls upon them pause and think carefully about the consequences of their reportage and commentary for the stakeholders involved, including their sources and their audiences.

Truth-seeking and truth-telling are still the primary goal, but only after gauging the resulting social good or harm.

Each of the constituent steps of Buddhism’s Eightfold Path – understanding free of superstition, kindly and truthful speech, right conduct, doing no harm, perseverance, mindfulness and contemplation – provides a framework for such analysis.

Space prohibits the examination of all of them here, but at least three issues arose in the election worthy of such reflection.

  1. Fact checking. The Buddhist notion of ‘right views’ focuses on a deeper explanation of root causes and the clinical testing of claims. The emergence of the ‘fact checker’ was a welcome development via Politifact Australia, the ABC’s Fact Checking Unit and The Conversation’s Election FactCheck. A longer term impact of such a tool might be that politicians are prompted to think twice before issuing scaremongering and outlandish statements.
  2. The News Corp anti-Labor campaign. The principle of ‘right intent’ calls upon us to reflect upon the genuine motivations for Rupert Murdoch’s Australian newspapers adopting such a blatant and belittling attack on the incumbent government. Cynical mock-ups like the Daily Telegraph’s ‘Hogan’s Heroes’ and the Courier Mail’s ‘Send in the Clown’ front pages might be excused as tabloid fun but they hardly indicate ‘right intent’ and ‘right speech’ in the Buddhist moral framework. The motivation could surely not have been to gain circulation, given the fact that the coverage stood to alienate perhaps one third of readers. It will be fascinating to see at the next audit whether this stance accelerated the decline of those newspapers’ circulations. If the intent was to win influence with the likely government, then this should have been disclosed.
  3. Presidential-style coverage. Just because political parties choose to run a presidential style of campaign does not oblige news organisations to embrace it. The Buddhist principle of ‘right effort’ invokes a steady, patient and purposeful path and ‘right mindfulness’ demands a considered and reflective approach to reportage. Each of these is difficult when reporters are assigned to traipse around the nation and cover political leaders engaging in stage-managed, superficial appearances at factories, schools and sausage sizzles. It is belittling to the enterprise of journalism to see some of its leading lights – and notable watchdogs – being led by the leash as mere lapdogs. It was particularly noticeable in a campaign where neither leader made a notable gaffe. We are left to imagine what might have been revealed if only these political journalism superstars had been afforded the time to do some real digging. Sometimes being ethical demands us to say ‘no’ to an under-utilisation our talents, which was clearly the case here.

livingethicscoverThe ultimate test of ethical political reporting in a democracy is the extent to which that journalism best informs the citizenry to maximize the value of each and every vote. In that respect, Australian journalism still has much to learn.


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 2013


Filed under blogging, Buddhism, citizen journalism, Eightfold Path, free expression, media ethics, social media, Uncategorized

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


The 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.

1827: NSW Chief Justice Francis Forbes rejects Governor Ralph Darling’s proposal for legislation licensing the press, stating: “That the press of this Colony is licentious may be readily admitted; but that does not prove the necessity of altering the laws.” (Historical Records of Australia, Series 1, Vol. 13, pp. 290-297)


The extract from the Sydney Gazette in 1830

1830: The Sydney Gazette and New South Wales Advertiser publishes an extract from London’s New Monthly Magazine on the prying nature of the British press compared with its European counterparts, stating: “The foreign journals never break in upon the privacy of domestic life”. But the London newspapers would hound a ‘lady of fashion’ relentlessly: “They trace her from the breakfast table to the Park, from the Park to the dinner-table, from thence to the Opera or the ball, and from her boudoir to her bed. They trace her every where. She may make as many doubles as a hare, but they are all in vain; it is impossible to escape pursuit.”

1847: NSW becomes the first Australian state to add a ‘public benefit’ element to the defence of truth for libel – essentially adding a privacy requirement to defamation law (ALRC Report 11, p. 117)

1882: First identified use of the phrase ‘right to privacy’ in an Australian newspaper. Commenting on a major libel case, the South Australian Weekly Chronicle (22.4.1882, p.5) states: “A contractor having dealings with the Government or with any public body has no right to privacy as far as those dealings go.”

1890: In a landmark Harvard Law Review article, the great US jurist Samuel D. Warren and future Supreme Court Justice Louis D. Brandeis announce a new ‘right to privacy’ in an article by that very name. There is a ripple effect in Australia with several mentions of the term in articles between 1890-1900.

1937: A radio station used a property owner’s land overlooking a racecourse to build a platform from which it broadcast its call of the horse races. The High Court rules the mere overlooking of the land did not consti­tute an unlawful interference with the racing club’s use of its property. The decision viewed as a rejection of a common law right to privacy: Victoria Park Racing and Recreation Grounds Co. Ltd v. Taylor (1937) 58 CLR 479.

1948: Universal Declaration of Human Rights is proclaimed in Paris. Article 12 provides: “No one shall be subjected to arbitrary interference with his privacy, family, home or correspondence, nor to attacks upon his honour and reputation. Everyone has the right to the protection of the law against such interference or attacks” (United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights, GA. Res 217A(III), UN Doc A/Res/810 (1948).)

1966: The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) is proclaimed, protecting privacy at Article 17. (16 December 1966, [1980] ATS 23, entered into force generally on 23 March 1976)

1972: Australia signs the ICCPR.

1979: Australian Law Reform Commission releases its first major report on privacy – Unfair Publication: Defamation and Privacy, ALRC 11. It recommends a person be allowed to sue for damages or an injunction if ‘sensitive private facts’, relating to health, private behaviour, home life, and personal or family relationships, were published about him or her which were likely in all the circumstances to cause distress, annoyance or embarrassment to a person in the position of the individual. Wide defences were proposed allowing publication of personal information if the publication was relevant to the topic of public interest. (pp. 124-125).

1980: Australia ratifies the ICCPR and the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) expert group led by Australian Justice Michael Kirby issues its Guidelines on the Protection of Privacy and Transborder Flows of Personal Data.

1983: Australian Law Reform Commission releases its Privacy (ALRC Report 22), recommending the establishment of a Privacy Act to establish information privacy principles and the appointment of a Privacy Commissioner.

1984: Australian Journalists’ Association (AJA) revises its 1944 Code of Ethics to include a new clause (9) requiring journalists to “respect private grief and personal privacy and shall have the right to resist compulsion to intrude on them”.

1988: The Privacy Act 1988 is enacted, applying initially only to the protection of personal information in the possession of Australian Government departments and agencies.

1999: Media Entertainment and Arts Alliance (MEAA) issues another revised Code of Ethics preserving the grief and privacy elements in clause 11.

2000: Privacy Act 1988 provisions are extended to larger private sector organisations, and 10 National Privacy Principles (NPPs) are introduced, determining how companies must collect, use and disclose, keep secure, provide access to and correct personal information. Media organisations are exempted from the provisions as long as they ascribe to privacy standards published by their representative bodies.

2001: High Court rejects an argument for a company’s right to privacy after animal liberationists trespass to film the slaughter of possums in a Tasmanian abattoir and someone gives the footage to the ABC, but the court leaves the door open for a possible personal privacy tort: Australian Broadcasting Corporation v. Lenah Game Meats (2001) 208 CLR 199.

2003: A Queensland District Court judge rules the privacy of the former Sunshine Coast mayor Alison Grosse had been invaded by an ex-lover who continued to harass her after their affair had ended. She is awarded $108,000 in damages: Grosse v. Purvis [2003] QDC 151.

2007: Victorian County Court Judge Felicity Hampel SC holds that a rape victim’s privacy was invaded when ABC Radio broadcast her identity in a news report despite state laws banning the identification of sexual assault complainants. She is awarded $110,000 damages: Jane Doe v ABC & Ors [2007] VCC 281.

2008: Australian Law Reform Commission releases its For Your Information: Australian Privacy Law and Practice (ALRC Report 108) recommending a cause of action for breach of privacy where an individual has a ‘reasonable expectation of privacy’, with a cap for non-economic loss of $150,000.

2011: Federal Government releases an Issues Paper floating a proposal for a Commonwealth cause of action for a serious invasion of privacy.


  • The Privacy Amendment (Enhancing Privacy Protection) Act 2012 (Privacy Amendment Act) passed, to take effect in 2014, featuring new Australian Privacy Principles (APPs), more powers for the Australian Information Commissioner, tougher credit reporting rules and new dispute resolution processes. Media exemption remains unchanged.
  • Independent Media Inquiry (Finkelstein Review) releases its report recommending a News Media Council take over from the existing Australian Press Council and Australian Communications and Media Authority with a streamlined news media ethics complaints system with teeth. Refusal to obey an order to correct or apologise could see a media outlet dealt with for contempt of court. Privacy breaches cited as a reason for the move.
  • Commonwealth Government’s Convergence Review releases its final report rejecting the Finkelstein model but instead proposing a ‘news standards body’ operating across all media platforms, flagging the withdrawal of the privacy and consumer law exemptions from media outlets who refuse to sign up to the new system.


  • The federal attorney-general directs the Australian Law Reform Commission to conduct an inquiry into the protection of privacy in the digital era. The inquiry will address both prevention and remedies for serious invasions of privacy with a deadline of June 2014.
  • At the same time the government introduces legislation to establish a Public Interest Media Advocate with the power to strip media outlets of their Privacy Act exemptions. That part of the legislation is later withdrawn.
  • The federal attorney-general seeks state and territory input on the regulation of drones following the Privacy Commissioner’s concerns that their operation by individuals was not covered by the Privacy Act.


  • The Australian Law Reform Commission (ALRC) releases a Discussion Paper, Serious Invasions of Privacy in the Digital Era (DP 80, 2014)The proposed elements of the action include that the invasion of privacy must occur by: a. Intrusion into the plaintiff’s seclusion or private affairs (including by unlawfulsurveillance); or b. Misuse or disclosure of private information about the plaintiff. The invasion of privacy must be either intentional or reckless. A person in the position of the plaintiff would have had a reasonable expectation of privacy in all of the circumstance. The court must consider that the invasion of privacy was ‘serious’, in all the circumstances, having regard to, among other things, whether the invasion was likely to be highly offensive, distressing or harmful to a person of ordinary sensibilities in the position of the plaintiff. The court must be satisfied that the plaintiff’s interest in privacy outweighs the defendant’s interest in freedom of expression and any broader public interest in the defendant’s conduct.


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 2013/2014


Filed under Privacy, Uncategorized

Mindful ethics for bloggers


[This blog was first published on the citizen journalism election site No Fibs, edited by Margo Kingston.]

Bloggers and citizen journalists come from an array of backgrounds and thus bring varied cultural and ethical values to their blogging.

No Fibs asks its citizen journalists to follow the MEAA Code of Ethics, and the journalists’ union has recently made a concerted effort to bring serious bloggers into its fold through its FreelancePro initiative.

This would have bloggers committing to a ‘respect for truth and the public’s right to information’ and the core principles of honesty, fairness, independence, and respect for the rights of others. Specifically, they would subscribe to the 12 key principles of fair and accurate reporting; anti-discrimination; source protection; refusal of payola; disclosure of conflicts of interest; rejection of commercial influences; disclosure of chequebook journalism; using honest newsgathering methods and protecting the vulnerable; disclosing digital manipulation; not plagiarising; respecting grief and privacy; and correcting errors. These can be overridden only for ‘substantial advancement of the public interest’ or where there is ‘risk of substantial harm to people’.

A decade ago in the US, Cyberjournalist.net cherry-picked the lengthy  Society of Professional Journalists Code of Ethics and proposed its own Bloggers’ Code of Ethics.

All this is fine for bloggers who are former working journalists, student journalists who hope to work in that occupation, and for serious bloggers who view their work as journalism even though it might only be a hobby or attract a pittance in payment. But many bloggers make the conscious decision not to identify as journalists, and thus need to revert to a personal moral framework in their work.

I have been exploring this in recent months and have coined the expression ‘mindful journalism’ after finding that many fundamental Buddhist principles – applied in a secular way – lend themselves to serious blogging when other moral compasses might be absent. Parts of this blog are drawn from my paper delivered to the IAMCR conference in Dublin in June, 2013.

Please do not interpret this as an attempt to convert bloggers to Buddhism. I am not a Buddhist and believe that followers of any of the world’s major religions will find core values in their scriptures that serve this process just as well.

It is just that Buddhism’s Eightfold Path is a simple expression of key moral values that can underscore ethical blogging: understanding free of superstition, kindly and truthful speech, right conduct, doing no harm, perseverance, mindfulness and contemplation.

It was while writing my recent book Blogging and Tweeting Without Getting Sued (Allen & Unwin, 2012) that I decided a guide to safe online writing required more than a simple account of ‘black letter law’. It forced a re-examination of the fundamental moral underpinnings of Internet and social media communication. Being safe legally normally requires a careful pre-publication reflection upon the potential impacts of one’s work upon one’s self and others – or what a Buddhist might explain in terms of ‘mindfulness’ and ‘karma’.

Dalai Lama’s recent book – Beyond Religion – Ethics for a Whole World (2011) – explored his vision of how core ethical values might offer a sound moral framework for modern society while accommodating diverse religious views and cultural traditions. Buddhist practices like mindfulness and meditation have been adopted broadly in Western society in recent decades and have been accepted into clinical psychology. Even the MEAA Code of Ethics states: “Ethical journalism requires conscientious decision-making in context.”

This is premised on the belief that journalists and serious bloggers can adopt a mindful approach to their news and commentary which requires a reflection upon the implications of their truth-seeking and truth-telling as a routine part of the process. They would be prompted to pause and think carefully about the consequences of their reportage and commentary for the stakeholders involved, including their audiences. Truth-seeking and truth-telling would still be the primary goal, but only after gauging the social good that might come from doing so.

So what are these core principles and how might they apply to an election blogger?

Each of the constituent steps of the Eightfold Path – understanding free of superstition, kindly and truthful speech, right conduct, doing no harm, perseverance, mindfulness and contemplation – has an application to the modern-day practice of truth-seeking and truth-telling – whether that be by a journalist working in a traditional media context, a citizen journalist or a serious blogger reporting and commenting upon political news.

Let’s explore its eight steps.

1. Right views.  A fundamental principle of Buddhism is that all things in the world are at once impermanent, unsatisfactory and non-substantial. News, too, is about the impermanent and the unsatisfactory. It is premised upon identifying to audiences what has changed most recently, focusing especially on the most unsatisfactory elements of that change. The notion of ‘right views’ can incorporate a contract with audiences that accepts a level of change at any time, and focuses intention upon deeper explanations of root causes, strategies for coping and potential solutions for those changes prompting the greatest suffering. In election blogging, it moots for less scare-mongering, more careful consideration of policies and the clinical testing of claims.

2. Right intent. This calls upon the blogger to reflect upon the genuine motivating reasons why he or she is blogging at all, then why they might be writing this particular commentary, and finally why they are selecting a particular turn of phrase or quote to make a point. Such a reflective approach can be revealing. How is humanity being improved by this action? Is it motivated in some way by ego or for the betterment of society? This might prompt a change in mindset from bringing news ‘first’ in a competitive sense but ‘best’ and most meaningfully to an audience in a qualitative sense. Of course, it would not be ‘news’ if were not delivered relatively soon after its occurrence, but in this era of instant communication this step reinforces the notion of ‘responsible truth-seeking and truth-telling’ – authoritative and credible news and commentary, obtained ethically, and delivered as soon as possible (after such reflection) to retain its relevance and utility without losing its veracity.

3. Right speech. This step relates to both truthful and charitable expression and, interpreted narrowly, that second element could present a fundamental challenge to the very concept of political commentary as we know it. It certainly places serious questions about the gossip and mud-slinging orientation of much political coverage. The notion of telling the truth and being accurate lies at the heart of journalism practice and is foremost in most ethical codes internationally. While a single empirical fact might be subject to scientific measurement and verification, any conclusions drawn from the juxtaposition of two provable facts can only constitute what a scientist would call a ‘theory’ and the rest of us might call ‘opinion’. Gossip about the private lives of politicians, barbed commentary, imposing labels upon them like the “Flimflam Man”, the “Mad Monk” or “Dr No”, and cynical mock-ups like the Daily Telegraph’s Hogan’s Heroes front page all fail the test of ‘right speech’. That is not to say harsh and uncomfortable truths must not be told.  It is the way they are told that is crucial to this principle.

4. Right conduct. The fourth step of ‘right conduct’ goes to the core of any moral or ethical code and invokes a reflection on the actual practices involved. Here, journalism codes offer useful guidance in their lists of “do’s” and “do not’s.” Even journalism ethical codes can gain wider understanding and acceptance by appealing to fundamental human moral values and not just offering a proscriptive list of prohibited practices. A recent example is the Fairfax Media Code of Conduct which poses questions employees might ask themselves when faced with ethical dilemmas that might not be addressed specifically in the document, including:

  • Would I be proud of what I have done?
  • Do I think it’s the right thing to do?
  • What will the consequences be for my colleagues, Fairfax, other parties and me?
  • What would be the reaction of my family and friends if they were to find out?
  • What would happen if my conduct was reported in a rival publication?

While this approach seems to focus on the potential for shame for a transgressor, it offers an example of a media outlet attempting to encourage its employees to pause and reflect in the midst of an ethical dilemma – what educationalist Donald Schön (1987, p. 26) called ‘reflection-in-action’.

5. Right living. The Buddha identified certain livelihoods that were incompatible with a morally pure way of living, shaped of course by the cultural mores of his place and time 2500 years ago. They included poison peddler, slave trader, prostitute, butcher, brewer, arms maker and tax collector. Some of these occupations might remain on his list today. We are left to wonder how the worst of political coverage – intrusion, rumor-mongering, name-calling, mud-slinging, and agenda-pushing for commercial purposes – advances the enterprise of journalism or the personal integrity of an individual journalist who chooses to ply that trade. This is where political bloggers working outside the mainstream media can distinguish themselves by applying a mindful approach to their work.

6. Right effort. The step of ‘right effort’ was directed by the Buddha in a predominantly spiritual sense – a steady, patient and purposeful path to enlightenment. However, we can also apply such principles to the goal of ethical blogging and citizen journalism in a secular way. We might sometimes see the hurried scoop and accompanying kudos as an end in itself. There can also be an emphasis on productivity and output at the expense of attribution and verification. Of course, stories and blogs could evolve into lengthy theses if they were afforded unlimited timelines and budgets. Commercial imperatives and deadlines demand a certain brevity and frequency of output. Both can be achieved with continued attention to the core principle of purposeful reflection upon the ethics of the various work tasks and a mindful awareness of the underlying mission of one’s enterprise. External factors will continually threaten a blogger’s commitment to this ethical core, requiring the ‘right effort’ to be maintained at that steady, considered pace through every interview, every blog, every working day and ultimately through a full career. As the Dalai Lama wrote in Beyond Religion: “The practice of patience guards us against loss of composure and, in doing so, enables us to exercise discernment, even in the heat of difficult situations (p. 142).” Surely this is a useful attribute for the reporter, citizen journalist and blogger.

7. Right mindfulness. This is the technique of self-examination I have selected as central to an application of these principles to blogging and citizen journalism. Effective reflection upon one’s own thoughts and emotions is crucial to a considered review of an ethical dilemma in a publishing context. It is also essential to have gone through such a process if you are later called to account to explain their actions. Many ethical decisions are value-laden and inherently complex. Too often they are portrayed in terms of the ‘public interest’ when the core motivating factor has not been the greater public good but, to the contrary, an ego or a commercial imperative. The Leveson Report into the excesses of the British press detailed numerous instances where such forces were at play, often to the great detriment to the lives of ordinary citizens. Buddhists (and many others) adopt mindfulness techniques in the form of meditation practice where they reflect upon their thoughts and emotions without reacting to them. While I have found this practice useful, I am by no means suggesting citizen journalists or bloggers adopt the lotus position in the midst of a breaking news to peacefully contemplate their options. The extent to which individuals might want to set aside time for meditation in their own routines is up to them, but at the very least there is much to be gained by adopting the lay meaning of ‘being mindful’. In other words, bloggers might pause briefly for reflection upon the implications of their actions upon others – the people who are the subjects of their blogs, other stakeholders who might be affected by the event or issue at hand, the effects upon their own reputations and the community standing of others, and the public benefits ensuing from this particular truth being told in this way at this time. There is a special need to be mindful of the vulnerabilities of some individuals you write about. Our own research has examined how coverage might impact on those who might belong to a ‘vulnerable group’ or who might simply be ‘vulnerable’ because of the circumstances of the news event. This concern for others also invokes the notion of compassion for other human beings, a tenet central to the teachings of all major religions, and a hallmark of Buddhism. The Dalai Lama explains that true compassion for others requires that sometimes we must call to account those who abuse power: “Depending on the context, a failure to respond with strong measures, thereby allowing the aggressors to continue their destructive behaviour, could even make you partially responsible for the harm they continue to inflict (Dalai Lama, 2011, p. 59).”

8. Right concentration. Some have compared ‘right concentration’ to being in ‘the zone’ in elite sporting terminology – so focused on the work at hand that there is a distinctive clarity of purpose. It is such concentrated attention that is required of consummate professionals in the midst of covering a major event. It is at this time that we actually enter ‘the zone’ and are able to draw on core ethical values to produce important reportage and commentary within tight deadlines, paying due regard to the impact of their work upon an array of individual stakeholders and to the broader public interest. It is in this moment that it all comes together for the mindful journalist or blogger – facts are verified, comments from a range of sources are attributed, competing values are assessed, angles are considered and decided and timing is judged. And it all happens within a cool concentrated focus, sometimes amidst the noise and mayhem of a chaotic news event.

We cannot expect the millions of bloggers and citizen journalists internationally to abide by a unified moral or ethical code. Some will draw upon foundational principles from the Koran, the Bible, the Torah or Confucianism. Others will reflect upon classic secular guidelines like Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People or Rudyard Kipling’s If. And some of us might find guidance in these eight steps developed more than two millennia ago.


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 2013


Filed under blogging, Buddhism, citizen journalism, Eightfold Path, free expression, media ethics, social media, Uncategorized

Media law basics for election bloggers


[This blog was first published on the citizen journalism election site No Fibs, edited by Margo Kingston.]

Countless laws might apply to the serious blogger and citizen journalist because Web 2.0 communications transcend borders into places where expression is far from free.  

Even in Australia there are nine jurisdictions with a complex array of laws affecting writers and online publishers, including defamation, contempt, confidentiality, discrimination, privacy, intellectual property and national security.

If you plan on taking the ‘publish and be damned’ approach coined by the Duke of Wellington in 1824, then you might also take the advice of Tex Perkins from The Cruel Sea in 1995: “Better get a lawyer, son. Better get a real good one.”

(A quick disclaimer: My words here do not constitute legal advice. I’m not a lawyer.)

The problem is that most bloggers can’t afford legal advice and certainly don’t have the luxury of in-house counsel afforded to journalists still working for legacy media.

So if you’re going to pack a punch in your writing you at least need a basic grasp of the main areas of the law, including the risks involved and the defences available to you.

Defamation remains the most common concern of serious writers and commentators because blog posts so often risk damage to someone’s reputation – but it does have some useful defences.

Political commentary has been much livelier over the past two decades since the High Court handed down a series of decisions conveying upon all citizens a freedom to communicate on matters of politics and government.

However, it is still refining its own decisions on the way this affects political defamation, and most of us aren’t as fortunate as Darryl Kerrigan in The Castle – we don’t all befriend a QC willing to run our High Court appeal pro bono.

That leaves us trying to work within the core defamation defences of truth and ‘honest opinion’ (also known as ‘fair comment’). (Of course there is also the defence protecting a fair and accurate report of court, parliament and other public occasions if you are engaging in straight reporting of such a major case or debate and a range of other less common defences).

Truth as a defence has its challenges because you need admissible evidence to prove the truth of defamatory facts you are stating – and you also need evidence of defamatory meanings that might be read into your words (known as ‘imputations’).

That can be difficult. You might have the photograph of a shonky developer handing a politician some cash – but you’d need more evidence than that to prove she is corrupt.

Serious allegations like these need to be legalled.

Harsh criticism of public figures can usually be protected by the defence of honest opinion or fair comment if you review the criteria carefully each time you blog.

This defence is based on the idea that anyone who has a public role or who puts their work out into a public forum should expect it to be criticised and even lampooned by others.

To earn it you will normally need to ensure that the target of your critique is indeed in the public domain. This covers criticism of such things as the quality and service of hotels and restaurants; reviews of creative works like music, books and artworks; critiques of sports and entertainment performances; and reflections on the role and statements of politicians and other public officials.

Your defamatory material needs to be your honest opinion, based upon provable facts stated in the material.

While facts might be provable, you obviously can’t prove the truth or falsity of opinions themselves, which are much more subjective in their nature.

As I explain in Blogging and Tweeting Without Getting Sued (Allen & Unwin, 2012) the law will not allow you to parade a fact as an opinion. For example, you could not write “In my opinion, Jones is a rapist and the judge must be demented”. In such a case, the court would view both allegations as statements of fact, and you would need to prove the truth of each. However, if you had drawn on provable facts to prove Jones had indeed committed serious sexual offences and had just been convicted of rape, you might write your honest opinion.

You might write something like: “The one year jail sentence Jones received for this rape is grossly inadequate. It is hard to imagine how someone who has caused such damage to this woman will walk free in just 12 months. Judge Brown’s sentencing decision is mind-boggling and out of all proportion to sentences by other judges for similar crimes. His appointment is up for renewal in February and, if this sentence is any indication, it is high time he retired.” This way you can express a very strong opinion within the bounds of this defence as long as you are basing your comments on a foundation of provable facts.

That is not to say that you can just say what you like and just add the clause ‘This is just my opinion’. The defence will succeed only where the opinion clearly is an opinion, rather than a statement of fact.

It must be based on true (provable with evidence) facts or absolutely privileged material (for example, parliamentary debate) stated or adequately referred to in the publication.

It must be an honestly held opinion, the subject to which it relates matter must be in the public domain or a matter of public interest, and the comment must be fair (not neces­sarily balanced, but an opinion which could be held, based on the stated facts).

Matters like the private conduct of a public official do not earn the defence unless the conduct affects the official’s fitness for office.

If the facts on which the opinion is based are not provable as true or not protected in some other way, you stand to lose the case. The facts or privileged material on which the opinion is based should normally appear in our piece, so the audience can see clearly where the opinion has originated and judge for themselves whether they agree or disagree with it. They can also be based on matters of ‘notoriety’, not expressed in the publication, although it is safer to include them.

The defence is defeated by malice or a lack of good faith, so forget it if you’re a disgruntled former staffer trying to take revenge on your old boss.

Do all that and you can give that pollie the serve they deserve.

Fail to do it and you could lose your house and savings.

On a brighter note, the Media, Entertainment and Arts Alliance offers its freelance members professional indemnity and public liability insurance. See the details 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 2013

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