House of Hancock case has implications for real life based drama producers, say academics

Billionaire mining magnate Gina Rinehart’s last minute legal push to edit the contents of a fictionalised portrayal of her relationship her life could have serious consequences for makers of non fiction based drama, say media law experts.

Mandy McElhinney as Gina Rinehart in House of Hancock

Mandy McElhinney as Gina Rinehart in House of Hancock

Last Friday afternoon Rinehart took Channel Nine to court to gain access to the final episode of the series House of Hancock, reaching a confidential agreement with the network on Saturday which saw edits made to the second episode before it aired on Sunday night. The court heard that as part of the deal Nine agreed to broadcast a line at the start of the show about it being a “fictionalised” drama.

Journalism academic Mark Pearson, said the case raises concerns defamation actions could be used to stifle production of local content based on living persons, and said the case could have an impact on how producers choose to tell stories like the fictionalised House of Hancock.

“It’s a very difficult area to work in because, while copyright has a defence of satire, defamation has no such defence so a fair comment or honest opinion defence is required which is where such shows may find it hard,” said Pearson, a professor of journalism and social media, at Griffith University.

“Most matters have to be defended in defamation hearings on the basis of either truth as a defence or honest opinion and fair comment.

“I am loath to see any threats to free expression, particularly from the very wealthy who normally are the only ones who can afford such exercises, (but) unfortunately the law does not support docu-drama miniseries and semi-fictionalised material. “

Director of the Centre for Advancing Journalism Margaret Simons said Rinehart had clearly struggled with the spotlight and public interest in her for some time, and her various attempts to purchase media assets and enter political debate had shown this time and again.

“One the one hand one can have some sympathy that she doesn’t want her private life exposed, but I think Gina Rinehart’s history tells us that she struggles with the implications of being a public figure,” said Simons.

“On the one hand she has wanted to intervene in politics on certain issues and to own media which of course is very much a public act and the reality is that does open you up to scrutiny.

Pearson said the fact that it was so prohibitively expensive to sue for defamation meant it was likely many would not choose this option, but said in the case of those seeking to portray wealthy and powerful individuals it was a real concern.

He cited the example of the recent settlement between Ita Buttrose and the ABC over the portrayal of her ex-husband in the series Paper Giants that saw the public broadcaster make an apology.

“Ita Buttrose and the ABC ended up settling in what was a similar situation where an imputation was made about someone that could have been defamatory with an oversimplified portrayal of a situation and a person’s involvement in that.

“These actions could have an affect, but that will depend on who the docu-drama is about, in the Rinehart case it’s a relatively rare situation where its about the very rich and the very powerful where a key player is still alive and renowned for being litigious.”

Robert Burton-Bradley 


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