I’ve never subscribed to the rule of ettiquette that claims one should not speak or write ill of the newly deceased. Ignoring it might cause a degree of distress to grieving close friends and family if they happen to hear or read disparaging comments, and that might well militate against speaking out in some cases. Minor pecadilloes from long ago are best buried along with the dead. However, setting the record straight will usually trump those interests where the deceased has been prominent in public life and alleged misdeeds were themselves publicly significant, and even more so where they’re reasonably contemporary. You can’t defame the dead, but you can certainly express truths that should have been spoken long ago but for the stifling effects of defamation law in this country.
Maybe the ethical balance between truth and privacy has been tipped slightly by the new national defamation laws, which now provide a defence of truth without any additional need to establish a “public benefit” or “public interest” component in the subject matter of the publication. That makes it marginally safer to speak the truth about someone during their lifetime. However, even that overdue liberalisation of archaic defamation laws would not have availed anyone who wanted to speak the truth about a powerful, well-connected lawyer like John Marsden, the high profile founder of one of Sydney’s largest ambulance-chasing law firms, while he was still alive.
Paul Sheehan says just about everything I think needs to be spoken about Marsden in today’s SMH, although I found his apparent closing inference about Justice Michael Kirby to be rather odious. Kirby’s activities in public life are a world away from the sleaze that characterised Marsden. He doesn’t deserve to be slyly disparaged by association. Nevertheless, I hope Kirby resists the temptation to deliver a eulogy at this week’s memorial service. Marsden doesn’t merit such public expressions of esteem anyway.