Last year, Geoffrey Rush successfully sued the Daily Telegraph for $2.9 million after they published sexual misconduct allegations against him.
Now I’m no fan of Rupert’s rancid right rag, but that’s a lot of money for essentially reporting the news. Australia’s out of date defamation laws have made it near impossible to not only seek justice, but even investigate certain allegations or public figures, and have greatly impeded many Australians coming forward to formally name their abusers in the #MeToo era. Outrageously high compensation payouts have also had an effect on reporting in Australia, as journalists and their publications fear the financial ramifications of simply doing their (already low-paying) jobs.
But now, Australian states will soon conduct an overhaul of our defamation laws in a move to protect public interest journalism and bring excessive defamation payouts under control while freeing the courts up from more trivial cases.
This week, NSW attorney general Mark Speakman announced the plan to ‘reset’ the existing laws, blaming them for ‘crippling damages payouts, chilling public interest journalism and clogging courts with minor claims.’ Apparently, the new laws are due to be introduced by individual states ASAP, but in these covid-cloaked times, there’s no real way of knowing when they’ll actually be put into play.
Based on UK legislation, the new laws will include a ‘public interest journalism defence’ requiring the defendant to prove that what they published was ‘a matter of public interest’, and that they reasonably believed it to be so at the time of publication. They’ll also seek to put a cap on ‘aggravated damages’, which currently remain limitless. Had this defence been on the table last year, perhaps the outcome of the aforementioned Daily Telegraph trial may have been different. This year’s ruling against them for their dreadful fabricated frontpage ‘story’ targeting Daniel Johns would have remained unchanged, though, because shit reporting is still shit reporting—no matter how you spin it.
One of the biggest problems with our current laws is that they were put in place 14 years ago before social media platforms like Twitter and Instagram even existed, and most journalism was still predominantly in print, radio or television. Since 2013, more than half of all defamation cases refer to online incidents. Under the current legislation, every time someone clicks on an online news article it’s considered a ‘new’ publication, making online publishers indefinitely liable. Under the proposed new legislation, ‘publish’ is defined as the singular occurrence when the article is first published online, not every time it’s viewed. Hopefully, the impending changes will make it harder for bad behaviour to go unchecked, and easier for journalists to report on a story that ultimately affects the public.