The Australian Press Council has issued a call for “urgent action” on Australia’s defamation laws, after Treasurer Joe Hockey’s success in suing Fairfax over tweets and newspaper posters.

Professor David Weisbrot, the relatively new chair of the Press Council, slammed the fact that politicians of all stripes were heavy users of defamation writs:

“The current law seriously inhibits investigative reporting and robust political debate. This is particularly inappropriate since elected politicians can use the floor of Parliament and the extraordinary protections of parliamentary privilege to state their positions and defend their reputations.”

“I’m not suggesting that defamation actions should be abolished entirely, since reputations are very important and maybe even more so in the Internet age … However, a defamation action should be the last port of call, not the first.”

Weisbrot, a former head of the Australian Law Reform Commission, says it is worth noting that public figures in the United States rarely pursue and very rarely succeed in defamation actions, as American law requires them to prove malice on the part of the publisher before proceeding to argue defamatory imputations (in Australia, publishers can argue public interest publication through qualified privilege as a defence to defamatory imputations, but this can be defeated if the court finds malice on the part of the publisher). And in the United Kingdom, Weisbrot says, defamation law was recently changed to “accord with modern notions of robust free speech and the critical role of the media in holding politicians and the rich and powerful to account”.

Previous Press Council chair Julian Disney said in his last major address in the role that campaigns around free speech were not the appropriate role of the Press Council, as major publishers were better placed to argue those campaigns themselves, while the Press Council, with its limited resources, should focus on issues of media standards. But Weisbrot says the council is ideally placed to lead or participate in debate on the issue. “The Council may be uniquely suited for this, because the organisation is composed equally of publishers and independent members who represent the public interest,” he noted.

Weisbrot has previously indicated he believes the Press Council needs to move in a different direction to that taken by Disney. In an interview with Crikey in March, he said:

“Some chairs have thought the Press Council ensured continuing press freedom simply by doing its job of complaints handling – through maintaining public confidence in the press and the like. I take a bit of a broader view. I think we should also be out there as a body raising issues where there is a threat to press freedom.”