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A model the rest of the media would do well to adopt
Guest Editor Polly Bush: Journalist, author and academic Catharine Lumby recently discovered the refreshing response from an independent media outlet when she lodged a complaint against a comment one of their writers had made about her. To their credit, the outlet Crikey swiftly corrected the record and issued an apology. Catharine has documented this experience for Margo Kingston’s Webdiary. This is her debut piece – thank you Catharine.
By Catharine Lumby
Anyone worth their salt who's worked in journalism for more than a couple of years has probably had at least one close brush with Australia's defamation laws. Investigative reporters can literally spend years of their lives defending stories and compiling dossiers for lawyers.
Of course, journalists don't always get it right - and sometimes they get it spectacularly wrong. Sometimes they write things that really do seriously misrepresent someone and do genuine harm to their reputation (as opposed to their pride). The problem is that defamation laws, at their best, only protect the reputations of people who are rich enough to pay lawyers good enough for long enough to get a result.
As everyone working in the media knows, unless the defamation is beyond dispute, media organisations are often willing to gamble on the notion that the other party will blink first. It's only when you get them to the courthouse steps that they'll often back down. It's a policy which can cut both ways. Sometimes plaintiffs get settlements they don't really deserve because the lawyers figure it's cheaper to avoid the gamble of court. At other times, plaintiffs feel obliged to back down because their pockets aren't deep enough.
Either way, defamation law is not a law which offers a rational, expedient and democratic remedy. It's a law which is fundamentally out of step with modern life and the modern media.
So what's the sensible alternative? Well, last week I had the chance to find out.
I was browsing the Crikey website when I came across a piece by a former tv arts reporter which took issue with an interview Crikey did with me.
His problem was that they'd referred to me as a "media operator". This, he decided, was "way too generous" because, he claimed, I'd spent "very little time as a working journalist". In fact, I worked as a print journalist consistently between 1986 and 2004 writing news, feature articles and opinion columns for all of Australia's major broadsheet newspapers and for magazines such as The Independent Monthly and the Bulletin magazine. The former arts reporter had got his facts very wrong. What's more, it wasn't just my professional reputation at stake. It was potentially the reputation of the Media and Communications degree I head up at the University of Sydney. Students come to us partly on the basis that all the staff teaching professional skills subjects have high profile and extensive experience in the mainstream media.
As much as I'd love a beach house down the coast, I had no interest in pursuing a defamation action. All I wanted was an immediate correction.
I doubted I get one and geared myself up with a heavy heart to go and consult the lawyers. To my surprise, the editor Misha Ketchell responded to my email about the error of fact within two minutes. We had a very civil conversation on the phone and he cheerfully agreed to publish a correction. He also offered me space to write a response - which I did. He published that. And that was that.
I'm entirely happy with the outcome. And I'm extremely impressed with the professional way Crikey dealt with the issue. And I think it's a model the rest of the media would do well to adopt.
Disclosure: Catharine is a friend of Margo’s and former Fairfax colleague.
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