If you’re keeping score, the Australian media is now 0-3 in its ongoing campaign against accusations of defamation; first between Hollywood actress Rebel Wilson and Bauer Media, then between billionaire philanthropist Dr Chau Chak Wing and Fairfax Media (now owned by Nine Entertainment), and now between Nationwide News and Oscar-winning actor Geoffrey Rush.
In all three cases, the media organisations’ defences of public interest and truth were swatted down, their claims of using only journalists of the highest calibre repudiated. In the case of Nationwide News, its treatment of Geoffrey Rush was described as “recklessly irresponsible pieces of sensationalist journalism of the very worst kind”.
Next up to the plate is Buzzfeed, which is defending a claim of defamation from politician Emma Husar, which as of this writing is in mediation.
Make no mistake: the media is under siege. You won’t hear about this narrative from any media outlet because, frankly, no one wants be the one who undermines their own industry.
But there is an unmistakeable pattern to these lawsuits:
- In the case of Rebel Wilson, a flimsy claim that she lied about her age was somehow inflated into a career of lies and deceit;
- In the case of Dr Chau Chak Wing, an unsubstantiated allegation made under parliamentary privilege was not sufficient to claim a defence of truth when labelling him a foreign agent of some kind;
- In the case of Geoffrey Rush, the second-hand claims of an actress who was later deemed unreliable (which I have issues with, but I digress) were not sufficient to claim a defence of truth in accusing him of sexual misbehaviour.
The pattern is that they are rushing to their version of the truth. They are so desperate to turn every story into an episode of Married at First Sight that they’re cutting corners on traditional checks and balances like, verifying every claim and offering a right of reply (these days, a story often ends with one of the relevant parties being approached for comment but not being available at the time of going to press).
This is nothing new. The media has been getting away with this for quite some time; what’s different now is that the victims are pushing back.
The bigger issue that the broader public needs to interrogate is its role in perpetuating this culture. If you found the outcome of any of those cases unacceptable, I’d suggest you’re part of the problem.
These stories gain traction because they appeal to the unconscious biases of their respective audiences. And these audiences, shielded from dissenting opinion from within their respective echo chambers, are happy to believe the very worst.
It’s worth remembering that I’m not talking about fringe blogs like Mamamia; the organisations involved in these cases are the largest in the land, captains of the industry, and with pockets deep enough to afford a dedicated internal legal department. Yet here they are, making the same mistakes as the start-ups they so often ridicule behind closed doors.
In all three cases, a judge looked at the evidence and determined that the media companies fell short of their obligations in maintaining their journalistic integrity. Not in one case, not in two cases, but all three.
If even they can’t get it right, who can? Should we even trust the media anymore?
Every time I read a news story, I always ask myself:
- Am I being told how to feel? Are certain things or events being characterised as “shocking”, “brutal”, or “appalling”?
- Am I getting a balanced story? Or am I simply expected to take a person’s word for it?
- Who benefits from this story being told? If the media outlet isn’t making a transparent grab for eyeballs, this is a reliable way for spotting propaganda and cash-for-comment.
I’ve been asking myself these questions for years, and the conclusion I’ve come to is that the media is growing desperate. Their sales forecasts have been in decline for years, and they’ve started slowly testing the idea of making compromises to quality journalism because there doesn’t seem to be the demand for it that there once was.
But, as these most recent defamation cases demonstrate, even if the masses do not demand credible, high-quality journalism, the legal system surely will.