Victoria’s Supreme Court has sent a message to the media that the relentlessness pursuit of readers, increased circulation and online views shouldn’t be underpinned by stories based on falsehoods.
The court awarded a record defamation payout of $4.56 million to Australian actress Rebel Wilson because of a series of articles by Woman’s Day magazine, published in 2015 by Bauer Media, portrayed her as a serial liar.
The size of the payout is a clear message to the media, according to legal experts who were stunned by the size of the judgement against Bauer.
Courts will go hard against media outlets who publish falsehoods in the name of getting a bigger audience, the lawyers say.
“In my long experience it is the highest defamation award to a plaintiff against media in Australia,” says media lawyer Mark O’Brien .
“I would summarise this as the plaintiff winning too well,” he told Business Insider. “In other words, it would be more likely to give rise to appeal points with such an extraordinarily high verdict.”
Other lawyers spoken to by Business Insider were also stunned by the amount of the award.
The size of the payout would have a big impact on a small media player. Only the bigger groups, such as Fairfax Media and News Corp, could absorb that level of a payout.
In this case, Rebel Wilson had earlier offered to settle for $200,000.
And when the case came to court, Bauer was found to have failed to properly investigate the allegations made against Wilson and published them in Women’s Day knowing them to be false.
“Bauer Media knew that the imputations that they conveyed were false, but they proceeded to publish nonetheless,” said Justice John Dixon.
The publisher didn’t care whether Wilson suffered as it pursued its own corporate interests of improved circulation, increased views/hits, and higher profits, according to the judge.
And it tried to defend itself by saying that its articles were trivial or not likely to be taken seriously. This was rejected by a jury in June this year which found the defamation proved.
“Unless substantial damages are awarded there is areal risk that the public will not be convinced of the seriousness of the defamation, but will rather wrongly conclude that the articles were trivial or not that serious,” the judge said.
The payout also stands out because it is way above uniform national defamation laws in Australia which currently cap damages at $389,500.
What’s different about this case is the special and aggravated damages.
The story about Wilson spread because of instantaneous distribution across the internet precisely at the time when the media worldwide was focused on her success in the just released movie Pitch Perfect 2.
Justice Dixon was satisfied that, but for the repetition of the defamatory stings over the grapevine into US entertainment and celebrity media, Wilson would have been cast in lead or co-lead roles in feature films during the 18 month period following the media firestorm that the publications caused.
This is where the substantial financial loss comes in. The judge calculated this at $3,917,472 on lost opportunities.
The court was told that the publisher didn’t go to Wilson to give her an opportunity to refute the allegations made by a former classmate at Tara Anglican Girls School in Sydney who had an axe to grind.
“That wasn’t how these stories usually work,” journalist Shari Nementzik told the court.
Rebel Wilson gave evidence: “Here is a group of people I don’t know who just want to rip me to shreds on information that they know is false and that they know they shouldn’t print. I just don’t know why they would do it and to this day they haven’t apologised and, you know, they haven’t said why they’ve done this.”
Wilson is currently in the UK on holiday after finished filming Isn’t It Romantic, a romantic comedy, in New York.
She says: “Am going through the full judgement in my defamation case with my lawyers and will make a statement later in the day.”
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