Senator Sarah Hanson-Young has declared her successful defamation suit against Zoo Weekly as taking a stand against sexism. It isn’t. It’s yet another demonstration of the power of the state and the travesty of a free press in this country.

Just like Joe Hockey’s defamation case against Fairfax, Hanson-Young’s lawsuit is an intimidation tactic by an elected government official to cow the media into self-censorship. In a democracy our press needs the ability to write about, examine, hold to account and yes, satirise, those we elect to represent us. But Hanson-Young’s disgraceful legal action will leave Zoo and every other media outlet that bit more afraid to write about or lampoon her. Which suits her.

Yes, we find it distasteful to defend spank mag Zoo, particularly since its challenge to her — to pose semi-nude in its pages in return for safe harbour for a boatload of asylum seekers — and its subsequent photoshopping of her head onto a lingerie model’s body are deeply offensive to the serious question of offshore detention of asylum seekers and to women. But standing up for free speech means standing up for people whose views you find abhorrent — and Hanson-Young, as an elected representative, should believe more in a free press than in her own personal feelings.

In the United States, elected officials are held to a much higher standard than private citizens, and the burden of proof on them to prove a defamation case is consequentially higher. The United States Supreme Court has rightly decided that elected officials are and should be more accountable for their actions than ordinary citizens, and that the dangers of government overreach are far more devastating than the dangers of a journalist damaging a politician’s reputation. We wish the courts would make a similar determination here, but so far the piss-weak “public interest” defence has not been much of a shield for journalists under attack from overly zealous pollies wielding writs of defamation as weapons to silence them.

“As a mother it is a huge concern that my own daughter can Google my name and find images of my face photoshopped on to the body of a near-naked woman,” said Hanson-Young. We find it much worse that her daughter can google her name and find that her mother has put one more nail in the coffin of a free press.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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