The not always rewarding history of defamation and political leaders
My own experience in this and other defamation matters perhaps gives me a different perspective to many people on the balance there should be between critical commentary and reporting on political matters.
I still regard Jeff Kennett as a good and cheerful acquaintance with whom I have shared some wonderful lunches (and I hope I’ll do so again) despite having once met in a court room where I delivered an abject and warranted apology for saying something quite wrong about him.
The apology was, what I considered then, a fair cop though I still wonder about the amount of damages my then employer The Bulletin had to pay to end a separate defamation action over a related story. In the end my words did the Victorian Premier no apparent damage and, still hurting from paying a losers share of legal fees in my own case, I confess to a certain pleasure when Jeff subsequently lost a later case against The Australian. There’s something nice about the biter being bit!
My own experience in this and other defamation matters perhaps gives me a different perspective to many people on the balance there should be between critical commentary and reporting on political matters and stopping journalists writing damaging untruths about politicians. I know that without the fear in the back of my mind of going though the legal processes again I would be far less restrained than I now am when posting in judgment but on balance that is no bad thing. I can’t remember a story in my 50 years of writing about politics that has really suffered from not being able to say what I want.
Other journalists — Andrew Bolt being today’s example — clearly want more unfettered rights than I am prepared to cop. Good on him for his courage but politicians who believe they are being unfairly attacked are left with his approach with no alternative really but to resort to the law. Only by taking — and winning — substantial damages can someone like Julia Gillard hope to stop the irrelevant drivel being written about her from not only Andrew Bolt but Piers Akerman and others in the News Limited papers.
The suing approach certainly worked for my old boss Bob Hawke. Pools, tennis courts and new wings in his homes paid for by media proprietors helped mute a once prevalent view that he was some trade union maddie setting out to ruin capitalism. Even as Prime Minister Bob is said to be scored more than $3 million in settlements.
Former Liberal Prime Minister John Gorton did not fare quite as well. He sued the ABC over a This Day Tonight story in which it was implied that Gorton had instructed Malcolm Fraser to issue a false denial of a story which he knew to be true. My memory is that while he won the case the sensible judge’s decision left Gorton with nothing after paying his legal bills.
Which brings me to another personal memory from those years and the case of Winkin’ Blinkin’ and Nod. That’s how I once described a trio of Gough Whitlam staffers — Race Mathews, Graeme Freudenberg and Dick Hall — who took offence at being referred to as characters from a children’s poem.
Max Newton and I settled by giving them a life time subscription to the political newsletter Incentive which we published at the time. That turned out not to be much of an expense. We went out of business not long afterwards.