Australians are a magazine-loving country of readers. In fact, we have one of the highest magazine readerships in the world. Whether in digital or in print and further boosted by social media, we have an insatiable desire for sensational news.
The recent Rebel Wilson damages award of some $4.5 million over defamatory magazine articles published by Bauer Media is going to finally bring some social order into the truth about articles being published. It will also give hope to many individuals who have been defamed and their reputations tarnished, but felt they had no viable recourse on the matter.
When is there a line drawn between fact and fiction and is there a duty of care that the information written about our favourite stars and famous people should be truthful and backed by facts?
The Rebel Wilson defamation case certainly demonstrates that media has a duty of care to publish information that does not defame nor injure a person’s reputation. Numerous individuals have had untruths published about them but have not fought the fight and this cancer continues to grow among some media outlets who apply no fact-checking filter to the content they publish about people.
Parke Lawyers Executive Manager Corporate Affairs spent the first 15 years of her working career as a journalist working for daily newspapers around Australia as well as national magazines. Her professional career is now about protecting company and individual reputations and ensuring the correct messages and information is distributed about her clients.
Ms Torrisi recalls her journalist days and the pressure to source, write and publish a story that she always aimed to be the top scoop of the day.
“Editors, although cautious about defamatory material, focused more on court matters and material that could be in contempt of court, but as for social news, well that was open slather. They knew that the likelihood of being sued for defamation was minimal and the unspoken thinking was, everyone had a right to know about the lives of socialites and famous people.”
Today, Ms Torrisi says, nothing has changed, in fact false news has grown and its toxicity has intensified with the explosion of social media. In her role as Parke Lawyers Executive Manager Corporate Affairs, she works closely with clients of the practice, some of whom also seek the expertise of the specialist commercial litigation team to defend client reputations and seek remedies where necessary.
“It takes a lifetime to build a reputation but it can be destroyed overnight,” Ms Torrisi says. “Every person has a right to be protected from the distribution of false and damaging information.
How do you know if you have a defamation case? Roland Müller, special counsel and commercial litigation accredited specialist says it comes down to seeking the right advice.
Not every negative comment or inaccurate publication is defamatory and over-reacting can often cause you more damage.
There are also various defences available, of which many people are unaware. As Ms Wilson’s case shows, there are high stakes in defamation proceedings and obtaining good advice on whether you have a strong case is a sound investment. As we saw in Joe Hockey’s case against Fairfax Media in 2015, it is possible to be out of pocket after a ‘win’, so it is important to find out what will result in a successful outcome to minimise the risks.”
The process begins with securing evidence of the defamatory publication or statement. Then, it is important to identify the right defendants and look at whether others have re-published the defamatory content. It is then important to decide on the objective, as different outcomes are important to different people. Some seek financial compensation, others seek a retraction or apology, while others may be aware of an impending publication and seek court orders to stop it being published in the first place.
In non-urgent scenarios, issuing a concerns notice before commencing proceedings is advisable. It may result in the matter resolving, and also helps to set up a claim for legal costs if litigation becomes necessary. If the concerns notice does not resolve the matter, court documents will need to be prepared and proceedings issued. The matter will then be heard in court unless it resolves before trial.
Mr Müller says, “A successful defamation case can help remedy or compensate for reputational damage and send a clear message to others to think twice about publishing defamatory content. Investing in the right legal advice can pay dividends and manage many of the risks, especially in defamation proceedings where the stakes can be very high. With legal advice, you get what you pay for and having the right lawyer by your side can make a world of difference.”
Parke Lawyers is a leading Australian boutique law firm with significant expertise in defamation cases. For more information or to speak to one of our Accredited Specialist Commercial Litigation lawyers contact us.