Rebel with a cause

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Australian celebrity Rebel Wilson has been awarded an astounding $4.56 million dollars in damages by the Victorian Supreme Court.

In awarding Australia’s largest ever defamation payout, the judge called the defamation enacted by Woman’s Day, Australian Women’s Weekly, New Weekly and OK Magazine “unprecedented in this country” (because of the articles’ global reach).

Wilson sued Bauer for damages, arguing the ‘serial liar’ allegations had ruined her reputation and cost her lucrative movie roles.

With the outcome likely to mark the beginning of a period of reform for defamation law, it’s a good time to take a look at the state of play vis-a-vis defamation law in Australia and how it impacts those working in the media.

According to the Fitzroy Legal Centre: “Anyone who has had damaging material published about them can take legal action against authors, publishers, broadcasters and distributors to defend their reputation.”

In a nutshell…

In common law a person has a right to a good reputation until proven otherwise. The original statute, the Newspaper Libel and Registration Act of 1881, placed the burden on publishers with regards to libel. Since then the law has seesawed between favouring the media and the defendants. Currently Australia exists under a Uniform Defamation Law regime that came into operation in 2005. Many pundits believe that after 12 years of operation these laws are ripe for review. Due to the ease with which plaintiffs can prove that they have suffered damage to their reputations, the balance of power lies squarely in their quarter. There has been a slew of recent case law, the latest being Rebel Wilson’s high profile case, that may prompt some sort of legislative review process. Watch this space!

So what are some of the basic things that media professionals in Australia need to be aware of in regards to defamation law. First of all, at least a basic understanding of the major concepts will hold you in good stead.

Libel vs Slander

In Australia the difference between Libel (published defamation) and Slander (spoken defamation) is, according to the Uniform law, no longer relevant. The distinction originally rose out of the permanency of some forms of published material, as opposed to the relative fleeting nature of the spoken word. Today’s media landscape renders this distinction irrelevant. Potentially everyone has the ability to record and broadcast any spoken words or gestures.

Social Media and Twitter

The wild and unruly nature of Twitter, Facebook and other blogging platforms sees any and all opinions dished up seemingly uninhibited by decorum or moral prejudice. However, this perceived anonymity should not be mistaken with protection from litigation.  In 2014 a young man was ordered to pay a teacher $105,000 for defaming her on Twitter and Facebook.

So, when posting to social media it’s a good idea to think of yourself as the editor of a newspaper. You bear the responsibility for what you publish.

And of course, seek legal advice should you have any more specific questions.

While you’re pondering your next Tweet, here’s some further reading:

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