Opinion

Rebel Wilson’s defamation win is a warning for other publishers

Rebel Wilson’s defamation case win is not just about the money - it’s a dangerous precedent for other celebrity gossip magazines and the wider industry, Mumbrella’s Zoe Samios argues.

It’s not uncommon for a publisher or journalist, particularly in the celebrity gossip space, to be threatened with a defamation suit.

But when Rebel Wilson won her case against Bauer Media, many in the industry were eating their words after declaring the publisher would emerge triumphant.

Rebel Wilson in Pitch Perfect

That ruling has potentially fundamentally shifted the rules of engagement for a lucrative section of the publishing world, and set a legal precedent for future defamation cases in this space.

On the face of it the case was straightforward – Wilson argued articles posted across Bauer print and online titles painted her as a serial liar who had misled the public about her age, name and upbringing, which had ruined her reputation, cost her movie roles, with claims she could have commanded $5m-plus per film.

Wilson said the case wasn’t a tilt to squeeze money from the publisher, but to set the record straight. She wanted the implicated publications – Woman’s Day, Australian Women’s Weekly, New Weekly and OK Magazine – to understand there should be consequences to printing made-up claims about people.

But this isn’t a simple case of fact versus fiction.

The public often take claims in weekly gossip magazines with a grain of salt – how many times has Jennifer Aniston been pregnant now?

However in this case, many industry insiders and consumers held the belief that Wilson had frequently lied about her age and background to create a more interesting and Hollywood-friendly narrative around herself.

Indeed, Mamamia caused its own mini media storm back in 2015 when it “revealed” Rebel’s real age and details about her past.

The women’s network’s founder Mia Freedman was forced to defend the decision to publish the information, arguing there had to be consequences to being in the public eye and sharing falsehoods.

“I think that when you are in the public eye and you tell a lie about yourself repeatedly and insistently, that’s going to cause comment. You open yourself up for people to ask questions,” Freedman told The Sydney Morning Herald.

In light of this general acceptance Wilson had somewhat rewritten her own history to benefit her career and created mystery around her Hollywood persona, some have argued it was Wilson’s captivating performance in the court room which won the day, rather than the debate about the facts themselves.

But Justice Dixon dismissed the publisher’s arguments revealing Wilson’s background and branding her as a liar was trivial, saying in the judgement: “At the height of the plaintiff’s career, an international career that she had worked to build over 17 years, Bauer Media launched a calculated, baseless and unjustifiable public attack on her reputation.

Bauer Media launched a “calculated” attack on Wilson, according to Justice Dixon

“By its articles, Bauer Media branded a hardworking and authentic Australian-born actress a serial liar who had fabricated almost every aspect of her back story, from her name, to her age, to her childhood and upbringing, in order to make it in Hollywood. She was held up to be a phony and a fake.”

We all know celebrity magazines have been proven incorrect time and time again, but now publishers will need to tread more carefully and weigh up the gossip’s potential impact on sales versus its potential cost in the court room.

Could this then mean the end of weekly celebrity magazines?

The pressure of churning out weekly content will become a lot more difficult with the reality of a defamation lawsuit in their rear-view mirror.

And with the additional pressure of online publications like the Daily Mail producing similar content on an hourly, not weekly, basis, desperation to be salacious and misleading just to make sales and get clicks will only worsen.

It’s hard to tell how the magazines are performing, given the major publishers pulled out of the Audited Media Association of Australia’s audited figures last year.

The last recorded audited figures saw year-on-year circulation declines of more than 10%, the worst affected was Bauer’s OK! Magazine, which fell 18.6%, to a circulation of 48,029.

To ensure their survival, the publications may focus their stories on international stars as opposed to local celebrities, who may not be as focused on the news in Australian titles, and would perhaps be less likely to pursue Australian media outlets in the courts.

On the other hand, the international stars may see smaller Australian publications as an easy place to win money, and some reputational points, back.

Either way, the verdict means publishers now need to be more prepared, and a lot more careful.

What does this mean for Bauer Media?

Bauer Media, which is currently “considering” today’s ruling, will lose a lot of money as a result of all this. On top of the damages, Bauer has its own legal costs, and potentially Wilson’s to cover.

While they haven’t suffered the brunt of a defamation lawsuit of this size locally, let’s not forgot that Bauer lost a US$50m defamation case over claims Tom Cruise had abandoned his daughter Suri in 2013.

Should Bauer have libel insurance, it should be easier for the company to recover financially, but if not, $4.5m is a lot of money for any publisher in 2017.

Given the entire company – rather than a single publication – became involved in the defamation case, it is hard to say whether someone will take the fall for all of this. Clearly senior management thought it was defensible, otherwise they wouldn’t have taken on the expensive litigation.

While some of the journalists have since departed the company, Bauer Media defended its publications, and it will raise eyebrows if someone walks as a result.

It is understood there is an announcement due on Friday, and it will be interesting to see if the dots can be joined between the news and the defamation loss.

Regardless, it’s not what the Bauer family or its publishing company needed.

While arguably the last year hasn’t been an easy one for Bauer Media, the past three months have seen the departure of some of the company’s most senior executive and editorial staff, including CEO Nick Chan, The Australian Women’s Weekly editor Kim Doherty, and Bauer Media’s general manager for fashion, lifestyle and beauty, Fiona Legdin.

Yesterday’s ruling only adds to Bauer’s list of challenges, and the reputation of some its publications, including Woman’s Day, is surely tarnished.

The ruling could mean the speculated merger of the OK! and NW Magazine teams could be back on the table, which wouldn’t be a bad way for Bauer to save money.

But even if Bauer Media is able to appeal the amount it pays in damages, can it save its reputation?

This ruling has definitely put more pressure on the German family, and certainly would reinforce any buyer’s remorse, should the family be suffering from it.

While Rebel’s win could be seen as a case for all those who feel victimised by celebrity publications, it will be a blow to the struggling Australian magazine industry and will likely give the Bauer family more cause to combine or close magazines, shutter jobs and rely more on international content.

And knowing the way the German-based outfit operates, there’ll be retribution.

Zoe Samios is Mumbrella’s media reporter.

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