17 March 2021
Many were surprised when Attorney-General Christian Porter sued the ABC, using the very defamation law that he has criticised as favouring the plaintiff.
What will happen? Will it go ahead? Will he win? And what will be the effect?
I do not pretend to be an expert on defamation law, but I did run a live radio programme that called tobacco executives mass murderers most weeks for 14 years and I gave some thought to avoiding being sued. The advice was basically that if you spoke about a class of people, it was OK, but if an individual was identifiable you were in much more danger.
Defamation was defined merely as likely to lower the opinion of someone in the opinion of their peers, so was relatively easy to prove.
The defences were that it was true, or that it was in the public interest, or it was ‘fair comment’ on a known situation. (There was also ‘qualified privilege’ if the allegation was made to a closed body entrusted with maintaining standards, such as a complaint to a Medical regulatory body).
But after the lawyers had given this rather bleak advice, they said that main question was whether it would actually be in the interests of tobacco companies to sue a little-known doctor speaking on a little-heard community radio station. They could send him broke, but the issue would get a lot of publicity and how many people they killed would compete with how callous they were to stuff up the life of a little truth-teller. So I was to be careful, but not fearful.
Porter has raised the stakes in that if the ABC wants to run the truth defence, it has to prove it, which is hard with Katherine Thornton dead and the Police saying that without even a sworn testimony there was no hope of proving the case. If the story is not true, then arguably it is not in the public interest to discuss it, and since the ABC raised the issue, it is hardly fair comment on an existing discussion. Most people did not know which individual it referred to, but some did.
I am unsure to what extent comment will be shut down by the fact that it in sub judice, but I think if it is not a jury trial, judges are supposedly uninfluenced by the media, and you can comment on civil but not criminal matters. There is no doubt that everyone in the pub or tea room will have an opinion. If the ABC settles without running the case, Porter will claim a big victory. If the ABC fights and loses, he will also claim a big victory, but the damage done to him in the process is likely to be terminal. Most people are likely to continue to believe the story and he is likely to look like a privileged pratt using a bad law. This is not good when both he and his party have to face the voters.
Also, if the ABC loses, it will have a large budget blow, a loss of prestige and probably a budget cut from a vengeful government. But the process may have damaged the government enough to turn the next election and Labor may then restore the funding.
If you look at the tide of history, this issue is one that’s time has come. The coverage and discussion of the issue will make this a watershed moment where high legal costs are merely an investment in hastening a major social reform, though we cannot reasonably expect the ABC’s lawyers to see it that way.
Crikey looks at the strength of Porter’s team and case.