Defamation dollars on the increase

The outcomes of defamation court cases can represent a temperature check on society’s views and values – or at least the judiciary’s interpretation of that temperature.

A number of recent decisions, both high and low profile, indicate a move towards a more enhanced respect for reputations and judicial disapproval for those that recklessly damage the good standing of other citizens.

The biggest defamation decision, both in the size of the damages award and the profile of the plaintiff, was the initial award of $4.5m to Rebel Wilson in her claim brought against Bauer Media.

Whilst that award was subsequently slashed to only $650K on appeal, the criticism levelled at Bauer Media in the initial judgment was blunt.  It sent a message that at least some on the Australian benches had grown impatient with the modern media’s approach to accurate reporting and the growing thirst for online ‘click bait’ traffic, driven predominantly by ever more dramatic headlines.

The reduction in the damages award should not detract from that critique of the modern media’s handling of high profile reputations: the fourth estate is now on notice that if they play loose and wild with the reputations of those who can earn substantial income from their personal brands they now face a judiciary with an appetite for retribution.  The average Supreme Court judge does not likely watch Married at First Sight or the Bachelor and will therefore likely hold a more traditional view that the average Australian is not content to have their public persona trashed (pun intended) on national television.  We also now wait with interest to see the level of damages to be awarded to Geoffrey Rush following his successful defamation claim against the Daily Telegraph earlier this month.

Perhaps an even clearer indication of the current judicial assessment of reputational damage was seen in a New South Wales District Court decision that awarded $237,967.22 to an employee of a child care centre who sought to reduce his shifts at that business (as he was legally empowered to do) and then suffered the disapproval of his boss (who owned the business) through the publication by email of a number of allegations, the most serious of which being the inference that he had been sacked due to dishonest conduct.

The key issue from a damages perspective is that the email was only sent by the centre owner to 35 recipients.  The plaintiff was not a celebrity, even at a local level, and was not working in a high powered and well paid position.  In those circumstances an award of over $200K can perhaps be considered high, as the Courts have for many years awarded relatively low damages in such cases, perhaps with an underlying objective to avoid defamation being seen as a profitable commercial enterprise.  The writer has been advising on defamation matters for almost 20 years and it is a potential legal cause of action that has always come with a health warning as to the risk of achieving a pyrrhic victory.

So where do we stand in early 2019?  The media and public at large are on notice that intentionally, recklessly and in particular perhaps maliciously trashing reputations is not considered acceptable by the Australian Courts, and the judiciary is happy to critique such conduct through higher damages awards.  This is a good development.  Not because the writer specialises in defamation disputes, but because it goes some way towards redressing what was an ever increasing imbalance between liability and accountability for actions online, as opposed to old fashioned ‘offline’ activity. 

The internet was increasingly embracing the concept that it was the ‘wild west’ where anything goes and you could never be called to account.  Whilst that is the very opium on which the large social media websites thrive and sell marketing, it is not good for society as a whole.  In fact, it is perhaps one of the biggest legal, social and political challenges that we currently face.  The online world now presents as one of the most significant dangers facing our children.  It can impact their mental health in ways that the worst playground bullies of our youth could only dream of.

The more that the Courts, the Police and our schools are willing to really tackle and, where necessary, punish bad online conduct, the better.  Redressing the balance has to start somewhere, and those three represent the central pillars of our communities when it comes to moulding acceptable community norms.

Cove Legal specialises in resolving legal disputes with particular expertise in bringing and defending defamation claims.  Principal Roger Blow is recognised as a media law expert, particularly in liability arising from the use of social media.  He regularly provides commentary concerning media law issues to television, radio stations and newspapers. Additional commentary on these issues provided to Channel 7 News can be found by clicking here

Roger Blow

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This publication is not intended to provide and does not provide legal advice. You should seek professional legal advice relating to your specific situation(s) before taking any action based upon its contents.