Nov 29, 2010

Mitchell on defamation: ‘neither the paper nor I would ever sue’

Threats by editor-in-chief of the Australian Chris Mitchell to sue journalism academic Julie Posetti are all bluff.

Threats by editor-in-chief of the Australian Chris Mitchell to sue journalism academic Julie Posetti are all bluff. Mitchell has for years been criticised for the newspaper’s coverage of climate change and the attacks appear to be getting to him. Three years ago I and my publisher, Black Inc, were threatened with legal action by journalists at The Australian over what I had written about the paper in my book Scorcher. I had accused the newspaper under Mitchell’s editorship of running a virulently anti-greenhouse line, allowing the news pages to become a parody of dispassionate journalism, verballing scientists and attacking science in pursuit of a larger ideological battle. Weeks before the book was due to be published, senior staff signalled that defamation action was being considered. As I wrote shortly afterwards, this struck me as bullying typical of the newspaper’s style. With a daily circulation of 130,000 and double that number on Saturdays, The Australian is in a strong a position to defend itself against any criticisms, and it is in a class of its own when it comes to bagging people it does not like. The threats were also profoundly hypocritical. I emailed Mitchell to point out that as editor-in-chief he had for years campaigned vigorously against Australia’s defamation laws, with many editorials making a strong case against them for restricting free speech. I reproduced some words from editorials to remind him of his stance:
"Newspapers have become accustomed to being the victims of Australia’s ludicrous defamation laws, which act to suppress free speech and enrich lawyers … But now the defamation explosion is hitting the book publishing business hard … Book-burning through defamation means control of the historical record goes to the people with the deepest pockets and the smartest lawyers." (Editorial, The Australian, January 31, 2004)
And again a few months later:
"The defamation law as it stands has done grave damage to public culture in Australia … The whole legalistic approach ignores a fundamental truth: freedom of speech and a vigorous and open marketplace of ideas are essential to a democratic society … In fact, reputation is something established in the marketplace of ideas…" (Editorial, The Australian, August 6,2004)
The paper had also observed that "the legal system’s notion of reputation as a form of private property that can be damaged or stolen is at odds with the idea of a free and robust marketplace of ideas and comment." (Editorial, The Australian, October 21, 2004) I wrote that there would be few organisations in this country in a better position than The Australian to participate in a free and robust marketplace of ideas and comment. Indeed, in another leader (May 19, 2005), Mitchell had written that "big companies have plenty of resources for protecting their reputations" without use of the defamation laws. Mitchell responded quickly by email saying "Neither the paper nor I would ever sue". So what has changed to convince Mitchell that his reputation, if no one else’s, is a form of private property that can be damaged or stolen, that his actions should be outside the free and robust marketplace of ideas, and that book-burning is beyond the pale but Tweet-suppression is legitimate? Posetti’s tweet reporting words allegedly used by former Australian science journalist Asa Wahlquist were no more critical than my allegations in Scorcher, so when did Mitchell become so fragile? The Australian is feeling increasingly isolated by its stance on climate change. It hasn’t stopped writing defamatory articles about climate scientists, nor mimicking the IPA in attacks on all forms of renewable energy, but it has been working hard to publish voices from what it sees as "the other side" in order to give itself cover. These attempts are failing because no one trusts The Australian. Although it won’t be any fun for Julie Posetti, I hope Mitchell does sue. I would expect the discovery process to uncover a gold mine of useful documents for the defence lawyers, and the affidavits from the bevy of honest journalists who have left the newspaper in disgust will make great reading. Then, of course, there will be the flood of leaks from journalists still employed by the paper. Mitchell will be putting himself on trial.

Free Trial

You've hit members-only content.

Sign up for a FREE 21-day trial to keep reading and get the best of Crikey straight to your inbox

By starting a free trial, you agree to accept Crikey’s terms and conditions


Leave a comment

11 thoughts on “Mitchell on defamation: ‘neither the paper nor I would ever sue’

  1. Mark Duffett

    Hamilton’s attack on The Australian may or may not be justified, but it’s poorly targeted. The ‘defamatory article’ is largely a straightforward abbreviation of a longer interview piece that ran in Nature (hardly a hotbed of climate denialism) last week, while the renewable energy ‘attack’ is a reasonably fair counterbalance to the otherwise widespread, mostly unexamined assumption that wind energy is an unmitigated Good Thing.

  2. Mr Squid

    hear hear.this is all true to the form of a vicious, dishonest, corrupt corporation.

  3. shepherdmarilyn

    They again decided to attack me out of context in a column by Christian Kerr, aka Hillary Bray, a man whom I have met a number of times and had in my home to work on a story.

    He seemed to be saying that it is sloganeering to point out the very simple fact that everyone has the right to seek asylum.

    Don’t know why he bothered to include me in his silly lies.

    He also was saying that genuine refugees are “stealing” the places of non-refugees in other countries who are sometimes admitted here under very strict criteria and have no legal basis on which to hang their claims.

  4. JamesH

    I think Clive meant to link to Burchell’s extraordinary attack on Phil Jones which was also published in the Australian today.

  5. klewso

    “It was never about the money – it was always about free speech – and anybody else’s ability to handle it – to our satisfaction”?

  6. Clive Hamilton

    Thanks JamesSH. I could have linked to the malicious Burchell piece. But the first article was by Graham Lloyd, the Oz’s environment reporter. He reproduced the “Climategate” imputations about Phil Jones, suggesting he had fabricated evidence, despite the fact that three official inquiries had exonerated him. The Australian carried a letter by me two days later pointing out how unfair and damaging the Lloyd story was. I am guessing that Burchell was spinning off that exchange, and was quite willing to compound the libel against Jones, even though I had pointed out how wrong it was. For those such as him, the facts are irrelevant when the objective is a good slagging.

  7. baal

    Trust the Hammer to claim he got there first

  8. Mark Duffett

    @Clive Hamilton ?????? I have no particular brief for The Australian (which is why I wasn’t aware of the articles in question until now; I rarely read it), but I can’t see where the Lloyd article suggests Jones had “fabricated evidence”. Rather, the article clearly states “An independent inquiry dismissed claims of an attempt to manipulate data” and refers to “Professor Jones’s exoneration”.

    Has the online version of Lloyd been modified in response to your letter?

  9. Mr Squid

    The only reason Mitchell would want to sue would be malice, a get-back at Posetti for exposing the Oz’s crap relating to the Grog’s Gamut blog.

    And another thing: has the Oz apologised yet for its Page One SuperLie slamming Amazon rainforest/climate change research as fake.

    The Sunday Times apologised for publishing “inaccurate, misleading or distorted information” in the original story, which was later published as the lead item in the Oz.

  10. AR

    The Oz has never made a cent, nor broken even, yet Mudorc continues to wear the loss, as he does that of the UK Times, presumably because of the (perceived) influence it can have.
    Perhaps also as a fig leaf for his obscene association with the UK News of the Screws, the NY Post (who can forget ‘headless body in topless bar‘ as an example of quality journalism..?) and the Hun & Terrorgraph in Oz.
    It’s not about honest reportage & information but confirming the lowest prejudices of hoi polloi, aka consumers – the manager of Macy’s department store in NY was once bearded by Mudorc about never placing an ad in his fish wrappers and was told “your readers would be our shoplifters”.
    Or, when required for profit or politic (same/same) purposes, creating said bigotry.

Share this article with a friend

Just fill out the fields below and we'll send your friend a link to this article along with a message from you.

Your details

Your friend's details