Just a few days after Roman Polanski’s court case, another celebrity has won the
defamation law lottery: Kate Moss received undisclosed but
“substantial” damages in an out of court settlement from Britain’s Daily Mirror, which had claimed she was in a cocaine-induced coma back in 2001. (Story here.)
More serious, perhaps, than inappropriate flirting (at least cocaine is
illegal), but hardly likely to produce more than a raised eyebrow among
most readers.

The paper now admits that the story was false, but such is the
weirdness of the law that if it had gone to court, Moss’s lawyers would
not have had to lead any evidence that it was false: the Mirror
would have had to prove that it was true. In NSW, the situation in
defamation cases is even worse: a defendant has to prove that a story
was not only
true, but in the public interest as well.

Defamation law is highly regressive. The winners
are nearly always the well-off: politicians, celebrities, millionaire
sports people. Ordinary shareholders and consumers are left to foot the
bill.

Some of Crikey’s readers are apparently comfortable with this state of
affairs, going by the response to my earlier item on the Polanski
judgment. They say that Vanity Fair published a lie and
therefore got what it deserved. John McCubbery suggests that “if
journalists could be a little less Teflon coated and a little more
mortal, perhaps then they could be trusted more.”

Well, I don’t know if Vanity Fair
lied or not. It said in court that the story was not literally true but
nonetheless true in substance. The magazine may have believed it to be
true at the
time – which would make it a mistake rather than a lie. But let’s say
it was a lie. Should that of itself, without any proof of damage
caused, without even any allegation of criminal wrongdoing, be grounds
for a lawsuit? At the very least, shouldn’t the plaintiff have to prove
that it was a lie?

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
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