This week saw one of our high-profile defamation cases involving Network Ten in the Federal Court. It is fascinating following the media coverage of these cases, because in effect this involves the media reporting on its own conduct. There is a clear fascination within media to understand how far they can push a story before it becomes potentially defamatory of the people reported on.
The media is not the only group in society that should be concerned about facing a defamation law suit. We are seeing a massive increase in enquiries relating to defamation, in all sorts of contexts, such as:
*comments made about someone in a cultural or sporting group that shames them in that group and leads to their ostracism;
*parents criticizing teachers, leading to potential damage to the teacher’s standing in the school community;
*hostile comments about a person on Facebook or other social platforms, impacting on their friendships and career;
*gossip in the workplace about a particular person’s private life or work performance;
*false allegations circulating against ministers of religion or sporting coaches regarding the nature of their relationships with children.
The things that any of us say about another person could, in certain circumstances, be considered defamatory. We all exist within communities of people, where reputations can be damaged very quickly when a dreadful story is circulated about a person, whether or not that story is true.
What makes a statement defamatory? It can be in writing or spoken, and it can be said once or many times. It needs to be said to someone other than the person who is being criticised. Importantly, what is said or written needs to go to the person’s character, and have the effect of causing a reasonable bystander to think less of that person as a result.
Sometimes defamatory remarks have no specific financial impact, and in those cases, damages in the tens of thousands of dollars can be awarded purely for the hurt and social ramifications of the comments. The high-profile cases, such as Rebel Wilson or Geoffrey Rush, often involve much larger awards of compensation because of the financial consequences of reputational damage, such as loss of earnings from a drop in offers of work.
The way that the law stands, the very best thing you can do, if you realise you may have defamed another person, is to offer an apology. The heat will almost always go out of a situation, and potentially thousands of dollars will be saved, by admitting to a mistake of this kind. On the other hand, if you believe that what you have said is true, and you have proper grounds to back this up, there may be good reason to stand your ground.
Atkinson Vinden has significant experience in this area of law. If you believe you have been defamed or are concerned by threats from someone else that they are going to sue you for defamation, give us a call to get some initial feedback on how the handle this difficult situation.