The accuracy of a series of tweets at the centre of a landmark defamation case is about to be proved or disproved, thanks to the release of a tape recording of the conference where the alleged defamation occurred.

Crikey can confirm the existence of a tape recording from last week’s journalism educators’ conference, at which the former News Limited journalist, Asa Wahlquist, criticised the editor-in-chief of The Australian newspaper, Chris Mitchell. At the conference, Wahlquist described writing about human-induced climate change at The Australian as “torture” due to Mitchell’s “political view” of the subject, as well as his “tendency to conspiracy theories”.

Several live tweets of the session were posted by University of Canberra journalism academic Julie Posetti, including one that alleged Mitchell increasingly told Wahlquist what to write in the lead-up to the federal election. Mitchell denied this claim as a “lie” and Wahlquist later claimed the tweet took her comments out of context.

A tape recording has been located and Posetti’s legal advisers are likely to release it soon.

If the recording proves the accuracy of Posetti’s tweets it will give her a defence under the uniform Defamation Act, which provides a defence of “fair reports of proceedings of public concern” in meetings of academic bodies and other public meetings where matters of public interest are being discussed. In other words, even if Wahlquist’s comments at the conference were defamatory and inaccurate, Posetti has a right to report them, so long as she does so fairly.

In another tweet, Posetti reported Wahlquist saying that “Mitchell (Oz Ed) goes down the Eco-Fascist line on climate change” and that she left the paper “because I just couldn’t do it anymore”.

In her talk, Wahlquist did not say that Mitchell was an eco-fascist, as some might infer from the tweet. Instead, Wahlquist argued that Mitchell believes that some people who argue that climate change is human-induced are eco-fascists. If the case gets to court, the question may well be whether Posetti’s shorthand way of explaining this gave sufficient context.

Also, as Wahlquist told Crikey on Friday, she left The Australian, where she had worked as a senior reporter for the last 14 years, because of the grind of writing daily news stories — which she had been obliged to do more of in the past year.

On her blog, Posetti posted a statement by the Vice Chancellor of the University of Canberra, Professor Stephen Parker, in support of her cause:

“[I am] aware of the situation and [I am] concerned about the implications of it for freedom of academic expression. [I] continue to provide full support for academics providing responsible comment on matters of public interest such as this, which includes accurately summarising what experienced journalists have said about the workings of the nation’s media.”

Posetti added in her own words:

“All I am personally permitted to say on the issue at this stage is the following: ‘My University has not received any communication from Mr Mitchell and I have been asked not to comment further on the detail of what transpired until we know what allegations are being made against me and the University and have had an opportunity to take legal advice.’

“I continue to strongly value media freedom and freedom of expression. The only other thing I can say publicly at this point is…thanks to all those who have offered well wishes and support. It is very much appreciated.”

Posetti is fast becoming a chapter in her own thesis — she’s doing a PhD on the twitterisation of journalism. She gained 600 new Twitter followers over the weekend and a microblogger established the quickly-trending #twitdef hash tag for discussion on the topic.

It is understood The Australian is following traffic on the site closely. The editor of the media section, Geoff Elliott, went so far as to contact ANU academic Jonathan Powles to check whether he was the person who had posted an anti-Australian comment on the site.

The paper, meanwhile, was playing down the significance of the editor-in-chief’s law suit today, describing the case as “unremarkable” because at least two other cases of defamation on Twitter have been settled out of court. The report did not explore the effect the legal action could have on freedom of academic expression or more broadly on free speech. In response to the article, the leading US media academic, Jay Rosen, criticised The Oz for not including quotes in the story by the Australian media law expert, Mark Pearson, who was present at the conference when the tweets were posted.

UPDATE posted at 3.20PM:

The Australian newspaper’s campaign against Twitter took a bizarre turn today when the paper threatened to refer a joke tweet to the police. The editor of the paper’s media section, Geoff Elliott, rang ANU academic, Jonathan Powles this afternoon to say the paper would be referring a tweet he posted on Friday to the police because it constituted a threat to the newspaper.

However, it appears that the paper was unaware that Powles’ tweet was in fact a parody of a now infamous tweet sweeping Britain. In that message Paul Chambers threatens to blow up a UK airport because it is closed and he might miss his flight. He was charged over the tweet, and lost his appeal a fortnight ago and was fined. But thousands of people responded by sending “I am Spartacus” tweets to show their support for what they understood was clearly a joke message.

Powles’ tweet called on people to blow The Australian newspaper “sky high”, in response to editor-in-chief Chris Mitchell’s threat to sue Canberra University academic Julie Posetti for defamation after she had tweeted comments made by ex-News Limited reporter Asa Wahlquist at a conference last week. He posted the comment on #twitdef, a site set up to support Posetti against Mitchell’s defamation case.

Powles told Crikey he felt intimidated by the call from The Australian, but opted not to explain the tweet’s cultural references. Elliott refused to tell Crikey whether Mitchell had asked him to make the call to Powles.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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