As part of his judgment finding on behalf of Joe Hockey’s defamation lawsuit against Fairfax, Justice Richard White spends a good deal of time talking about Fairfax’s “Treasurer for sale” headline and accompanying placard and tweets. White goes so far as to suggest alternative headlines, which might be legally safer but would certainly not inspire many people to read the story:

“There were readily available alternative formats of the poster by which the SMH could have promoted its articles. A poster which read ‘Hockey: donations and access. Herald investigation’ may, for example, have been appropriate. A poster in that form would have had the same number of words as that actually published. However, the SMH did not have to confine its poster to six words. It could, for example, have promoted its article by a poster containing ‘Hockey: membership, donations and access: Herald investigation’ or ‘Access to Treasurer can be bought, Herald investigation’.”

Leaving aside the matter of whether “for sale” means the same as “can be bought”, those headlines don’t exactly have the snappy ring of “Treasurer for sale”, don’t you think? Would you read “Hockey: donations and access. Herald investigation”? It breaks most subeditors’ rules for headlines: that they be active, as short as practicable and enticing. Headlines are generally thought to be allowed to go further than stories themselves, as a defamatory imputation is thought to come from the whole story. White concedes this:

“The ordinary reasonable person is taken to have read the whole of a newspaper article and not just the headline or the particular portions of which complaint is made …”

But the main substance of the case hinged on the tweets and placard used to advertise the story, which featured the headline. “I also accept that it was reasonable for the respondents to seek to promote the reading of the articles,” White wrote, but we don’t know how much promotion the above suggestions would warrant.

We thought we’d better amend some of our headlines in yesterday’s edition of Crikey to make sure everything was banal and reader-repelling enough to be judge-proof.

And as a service to our friends at The Daily Telegraph (which is the least-trusted newspaper in Australia, but it does have some cracking headlines) we had a look through a few recent editions. There were definitely some heads in there we thought Justice White might not like, so we’ve rewritten them. No need to thank us, guys.

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