They’re all buffoons!

chestertonThe High Court this morning rejected an appeal by former radio star John Laws’ employer Radio 2UE against a defamation verdict for comments he made about fellow shockjock Ray Chesterton.  The SMH seems to summarise the judgment accurately as far as I can see from a quick scan reading:

Radio talk show host John Laws has exhausted his final appeal against a finding that he defamed columnist Ray Chesterton by calling him a “bombastic, beer-bellied buffoon”.

The High Court has dismissed an appeal by radio station 2UE over a jury’s finding that Laws defamed the Daily Telegraph journalist in comments broadcast in August 2005. …

After a Supreme Court jury found Laws’s comments were defamatory, the radio station appealed first to the NSW Court of Appeal and then to the High Court.

But the High Court unanimously found in a judgement handed down this morning that the judge in the original case had correctly instructed the jury and affirmed the general test for defamation, that the comments would cause an ordinary reasonable person to think less of the plaintiff.

Chesterton’s lucky I wasn’t on the jury.  I don’t know about the “beer-bellied” bit, but I would have thought being a bombastic buffoon was part of the job description for a radio shockjock. 

Mind you, it does make me wonder whether my own concerns about the need to balance rights to protection of reputation against free speech rights if a bill of rights is enacted might be a little overblown.  The vast majority of defamation cases are by public figures entirely capable of defending themselves, and who in many cases see a defamation win as akin to a second division Tatslotto prize rather than compensation for genuinely wounded feelings or a truly lowered public reputation.  Chesterton could have just gone on his own programme and responded in kind: “Nah nah nah.  Takes one to know one!”   Why should the publicly funded resource of our court system be clogged with this sort of trivial, childish nonsense?

About Ken Parish

Ken Parish is a legal academic, with research areas in public law (constitutional and administrative law), civil procedure and teaching & learning theory and practice. He has been a legal academic for almost 20 years. Before that he ran a legal practice in Darwin for 15 years and was a Member of the NT Legislative Assembly for almost 4 years in the early 1990s.
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Gummo Trotsky
Gummo Trotsky
12 years ago

In fairness to Chesterton, we should not all of Laws’ alleged imputations (point 14 of the High Court judgement):

14. The imputations said to have been conveyed by [the defendant’s] words were:

(a) the plaintiff is a creep in that he is an unpleasant and repellent person;
(b) the plaintiff is a bombastic, beer-bellied buffoon;
(c) that as a journalist the plaintiff is not to be taken seriously;
(d) the plaintiff was fired from Radio 2UE;
(e) the plaintiff falsely accuses John Laws of being responsible for his dismissal from Radio 2UE;
(f) the plaintiff is an ungrateful person in that he accepted the hospitality of John Laws and then attacked him.

Two further imputations, (g) and (h), were alleged but they are not relevant to the issues on this appeal.

What may be a worry, is point 15 of the judgement, which includes:

The imputations with which this appeal is concerned are those in (b), (c) and (d), which the plaintiff alleged injured him in his profession as a journalist…

As an ordinary reasonable person, I can think of several columnists who ought to injured in their profession as journalists, to the point where they end up in the Centrelink queue. This judgement sets a poor precedent IMO.

John Greenfield
John Greenfield
12 years ago

Hey KP, did you delete that last post because it upset CT rules or because you fear – per this article – it might have had legal implications?

Gummo Trotsky
Gummo Trotsky
12 years ago

Um ‘we should note’ for ‘we should not’ in the first sentence of my last comment.

John Greenfield
John Greenfield
12 years ago

KP. I take your word for it. If that is where this country has come to, then faaaarrrrrkkkkkk! So how much liberty with such public figures do you think we safely have on even relatively obscure blogs!?

John Greenfield
John Greenfield
12 years ago

p.s. Who would get targeted for legal action. You, me, or the site server?

RichardP
RichardP
12 years ago

In reality, a lot of defamation cases are between ordinary people – not celebrities and the verdicts are often (relatively) small. I just looked at the three most recent cases in the NSW district court, and the verdicts were for $5,000.00, $50,000.00 (for each of two plaintiffs) and $30,000.00. Not to be sneezed at, but not a bucket load either. and the parties were basically vanilla australians – members of the same Moree based quango and social network, members of family or school networks.

And defamation law is there to protect a very important interest – he who steals my purse etc – the interest in reputation. Not as important as life, or having all four limbs in reasonable working order, but pretty important, and in some cases devastating to self esteem and even to ability to earn a dollar if destroyed.

As for clogging the lists, I had a similar unscientific dekko at the recent high court cases on austlii and of the (approx) 60 or 70 from april 08 to now, only one was a defamation matter.

The far more interesting case from a social viewpoint i suspect, was the veenstra one, and no doubt comments are currently being prepared. or not.

There is another interesting thing about the high ct at the moment, which is whether we will now see an era typified by a substantial slab of unanimous decisions. And, of course, whether that is a good thing.

Tel_
Tel_
12 years ago

…alleged injured him in his profession as a journalist

Journalism is a profession? Well, that right there is your problem.

denningesque
denningesque
12 years ago

Richard P is dead on. Most defo cases start in the intermediate jurisdictions, the district and county courts. Many are jury trials. They originate from all sorts of encounters but there is a fair bit of litigation involving members of voluntary associations, between local government types and business people. Defo cases seem to be the plaything of the rich & famous because they are usually best placed to take on media outlets. Taking on a newspaper or the electronic media takes resources and persistence. The defendants either settle early or fight and fight hard. Many of those cases involve lengthy, gruelling and costly interlocutory stoushes. They are also the cases that climb the appellate tree.
This decision is not particularly pivotal or groundbreaking. The High Court clearly thought the NSW Court of Appeal was in error in Gacic (see paragraph 60) when it appeared to be redefining the test for a defamatory statement when dealing with statements relating to a person’s business reputation. It is clear from the joint judgment that they used this appeal to strike down Gacic in that respect.
Defamation law should be amended even more than the most recent statutory reforms. We should follow the American lead and have a public figure test. In the US if a public figure sues for defamation it is not enough to prove the statements were defamatory it is necessary to prove malice or reckless disregard for the truth. There is a bit more to it but that is the gist. There should also be an actionable right to privacy.