Press Council chair David Weisbrot calls for law reform in wake of Hockey defamation case

APC chairman Weisbrot

APC chairman Weisbrot

The chair of the Australian Press Council David Weisbrot has spoken out in the wake of treasurer Joe Hockey defamation win against publisher Fairfax Media, calling for law reform in the area as a “high priority”.

In a statement issued this afternoon Weisbrot said: “If we are serious about free speech and freedom of the press in Australia, then we must tackle defamation law reform as a high priority.

“The current law seriously inhibits investigative reporting and robust political debate and, make no mistake, politicians of all stripes are heavy users of defamation writs.”

Weisbrot then took aim at the Hockey vs Fairfax cause which yesterday saw the politician awarded some $200,000 damages after the court found the politician had been defamed through a poster published by The Sydney Morning Herald and two tweets by The Age.

“This is particularly inappropriate since elected politicians can use the floor of Parliament and the extraordinary protections of parliamentary privilege to state their positions and defend their reputations.

“The need for defamation law reform in Australia is all the more urgent because, unlike virtually all other Western democracies, we do not have an express Constitutional or statutory guarantee of freedom of speech or freedom of the press that can be relied upon to temper the harsher effects of the law.

“I’m not suggesting that defamation actions should be abolished entirely, since reputations are very important and maybe even more so in the Internet age when allegations travel at the speed of light and the published record is difficult, if not impossible, to erase.”

The chair of the Press Council, who only took on the role in March, argued defamation should only be a “last port of call” and urged aggrieved parties to look to the publisher funded industry complaint body to avoid major legal costs.

“A defamation action should be the last port of call, not the first,” he said. For example, the Press Council regularly handles and resolves complaints similar to the Treasurer’s as an alternative to lengthy and expensive litigation. Aggrieved persons can also argue their own cases through the media and especially through social media. Using the court system to assign a dollar value to bruised feelings is a crude way of achieving the same outcome.

Weisbrot also compared Australia to other similar western democracies noting the laws in those countries have been tightened to protect the rich and powerful from using defamation to restrict free speech.

“It is notable that public figures in the United States rarely pursue – and even more rarely succeed – in defamation actions because the law requires them to prove ‘actual malice’ on the part of the publisher. Similarly, defamation law has been reformed in the UK to accord with modern notions of robust free speech and the critical role of the media in holding politicians and the rich and powerful to account.

“The Press Council would be happy to lead a reform process in this area, or to participate in one we regard as meaningful. Consistent with our role in advocating for free speech and press freedom, the Council may be uniquely suited for this, because the organisation is composed equally of publishers and independent members who represent the public interest.”

Nic Christensen 


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