Press Council calls for review of defamation laws

Australian Press Council chairman David Weisbrot has called for wide-ranging defamation law reform after the Federal Court decision against Fairfax Media this week.

Prof Weisbrot said current defamation law inhibited investigative reporting and complaints should first be dealt with through other means.

“Make no mistake, politicians of all stripes are heavy users of defamation writs,” Prof Weisbrot said. “This is particularly inappropriate since elected politicians can use … 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.”

Prof Weisbrot said he did not believe defamation laws should be abolished, given that in the digital age the public record can be virtually impossible to change. However, he said defamation should be the last port of call, and that the Press Council, for example, regularly dealt with complaints similar to that of Mr Hockey.

“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.”

Mr Weisbrot said the Press Council would be pleased to lead or participate in a defamation law reform process. To read the body’s full statement, click here.

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