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Lessons in ‘Right Speech’ and mindful communication in Queensland defamation case

By MARK PEARSON

THE comedians on the Ten network’s ‘The Project’ had some fun with defamation last Friday when they used a fairly sobering Queensland case as the reason to interview me on the basics of that law.

First up, a clarification. Near the end of the segment they seemed to imply quite incorrectly that I am a lawyer which, of course, I am not!

Mark Pearson (@journlaw) interviewed on The Project about defamation 24.4.15 [At 33 mins 15 secs]

Mark Pearson (@journlaw) interviewed on The Project about defamation 24.4.15 [At 33 mins 15 secs]

There is a serious side to this. The Queensland case they used as the segue to my very rudimentary explanation of defamation law was Sierocki & Anor v Klerck & Ors (No 2) [2015] QSC 092 where Justice Flanagan had ordered a total of $260,000 in damages be awarded to the plaintiff and his company over various Internet slurs against them by his former business partner and others.

The defendants had earlier failed in their attempt to prove the truth of the imputations that the plaintiff was fraudulent; was a conman; had committed adultery; had used illegal drugs; was evil; was a thief; was a liar; and preyed on the innocent and that his company’s services were disreputable; unprofessional and encouraged threatening behaviour. Quite a slur indeed.

33671_GAZThe Courier Mail reported earlier that the plaintiff was also suing Google for $2.6 million over its search results linking him to the sites containing those imputations.

The case is interesting for media law students for a range of reasons – the large award of damages, the fact that they were Internet publications, and for the proposed action against Google.

But I find the most instructive lesson is the extent to which a dispute between business partners can escalate so far out of control that one should take to the Internet to cast these kinds of aspersions against the other.

Justice Flanagan noted in the judgment that the cause of the original dispute was unknown, but the result has been enormous financial and emotional cost to all parties.

Our new book Mindful Journalism and News Ethics in the Digital Era: A Buddhist Approach (Shelton Gunaratne, Mark Pearson and Sugath Senarath eds; Routledge, NY) examined some of the causes of such disputes and the damage that language can cause to reputations and relationships.

I take this further in a forthcoming article in a special issue of the academic journal International Communication Gazette, edited by my Mindful Journalism lead editor Shelton Gunaratne.

In that article I examine the religious origins of defamation law and proceed to link it to the Buddhist concept of “Right Speech”, writing:

In this globalised, multi-cultural and multi-jurisdictional Web 2.0 era there should be no reason why the Judeo-Christian lens should have a monopoly on our examination of communication law. A mindful reading of defamation law benefits from a consideration of both Right Speech principles and concepts of necessary truth-telling. While it is far-fetched to expect judges and legislators in the West would turn to Buddhism for the reform of defamation law, an effort to abide by truth-telling and Right Speech principles could operate effectively when professional communicators are attempting to avoid libel litigation when pursuing their stories. Further, they present excellent tools for an alternative analysis.

The basic premise of Right Speech in Buddhism is that words should not be spoken (or written or published) if they are not factual or true, or if they are unbeneficial, unendearing or disagreeable to others. All of these elements seemed to apply in this case, or at least that was the tenor of the judgment. Of course, sometimes hard truths do need to be told, but we need to ensure they are provable as true or that we can operate under some other defence excusing their publication.

The Internet offers inordinate opportunities to those seeking to defame others. This is the latest in a series of judgments demonstrating that even when one side wins a record damages payout for defamation, nobody is really a winner when reputations are damaged for no defensible reason.

We need to look to our moral compass when speaking or writing ill of others and ask whether we have an ethical foundation for doing so.

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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 2015

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