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Defamation law’s threat to freedom of speech

  • June 26th, 2009

Have a look at Nicky Hager’s complaint about his defamation stoush with Crosby Textor (or Crosby alone to be more accurate). 

I expected to be amused by Hager’s complaints. . Instead I agree with aImost every word of his criticisms of the law. Judges and lawyers indifferent to the real effect of their costs and processes have made defamation law into a shield for wrongdoers.

The Hollow Men was deceptive. That  book spun sinister fantasy our of the ordinary wearying necessities of politics. Hager is a sophisticated political player. He  knows that politicians are forced into image indignities to play to an infantilised population through a media largely unable to distinguish political reporting (debate over issues) from sports reporting (whose plays and tactics might win the game).

But that does not mean that there is anything wrong with Hager’s complaint about defamation law. He is dead right.

I think there’s a simple solution. People who inflict cost on others with meritless threats of legal action should know before they start that they’ll wear those costs as well as their own, if they don’t or can’t substantiate their claims. It must apply whether or not the case proceeds in court, and cover all the costs reasonably incurred by the targets of the threat. 

A bill amending the Defamation Act for that purpose was among the many Member’s Bills I drafted to go into the ballot. I’ve loaded it here as a page on this site.

It was never selected. It may never have been submitted, because the Commonwealth Press Union showed little interest when I asked for their suggestions for improvement.

For me as a lawyer defamation law has not been such a  fearsome gag, because I’ve been able to do my own pre-trial assessments and correspondence. So I moved on to more pressing things. But to most it is justifiably terrifying.

Winston Peters was a master of the gagging writ. He lost at virutally every stage in actions with people I know, yet cost them staggering sums. The effect of his success with gagging writs has been that we may never know whether our Parliament has hid corruption worse than that uncovered in Britain. Our media stopped trying to find out whether Peter’s fisheries involvements were a filthy "cash for questions"  scandal or just involved unfortunate coincidences. We are all losers from that, including me, because I do not know for sure.

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