It has been a big year in defamation law. Rebel Wilson’s record defamation payout was reversed, actors Geoffrey Rush and Craig McLachlan are both suing major newspaper groups, Fairfax is appealing a $300,000 payout awarded to cricketer Chris Gayle, and broadcaster Alan Jones has become an even heavier liability for his radio station’s new majority owner Nine.
But it’s not just celebrities who’ve been getting in on the act this year. Australian politicians have a track record of trying to restore their reputations through the courts, and this year has been no exception. These were the most headline-grabbing examples:
Labor MP Emma Husar announced in the last sitting week of parliament she was suing BuzzFeed Australia and its political reporter Alice Workman over an explosive story about the way she ran her electorate office. She said she wasn’t given enough time to respond to Workman’s questions, which covered allegations of misconduct in Husar’s office, inappropriate behaviour and harassment. She said the story, published in BuzzFeed and followed by other media, could have lost her endorsement as Labor candidate (which has since happened), and she would be shunned by future employers outside politics. Husar has included special damages in her claim for non-economic loss, an increasing trend following the Rebel Wilson case.
In May, former Liberal MP Sophie Mirabella won $175,000 in damages from regional Victorian paper the Benalla Ensign over its report from the 2016 federal election campaign, where it incorrectly reported Mirabella — then the sitting member for the federal electorate of Indi — had pushed then-candidate and independent Cathy McGowan away from a photo opportunity with Aged Care Minister Ken Wyatt. Mirabella sued the paper and its editor Libby Price over the report, which Mirabella said was “devastating”.
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In a very rare case of a politician suing a fellow sitting member, Senator Sarah Hanson-Young is currently pursuing defamation action against her parliamentary colleague Senator David Leyonhjelm. Hanson-Young lodged her lawsuit in August, and has offered to settle for $75,000, over comments Leyonhjelm made about Hanson-Young’s views on men in the Senate, then repeated on Sky News and 3AW. Hanson-Young has previously successfully sued Zoo magazine for defamation over photoshopped images it published with her face on a lingerie model’s body.
Luke Foley (honourable mention)
The now-former NSW Labor leader Luke Foley briefly and publicly toyed with the idea of suing the ABC and its journalist Ashleigh Raper after her accusations against him of inappropriate behaviour were made public. The allegations, first made public in parliament by Liberal MP David Ellis, were confirmed by Raper through an ABC statement, and denied by Foley. The politician said he would sue, but has since confirmed he wouldn’t go ahead with any such action: “It’s in no-one’s interests for the matter to be the subject of long-running court proceedings and I won’t put everyone through this.”