Media leaders call for defamation law reform

Media executives have called on the Albanian government to urgently reform defamation laws, warning that costly legal battles are crippling the industry and investment in public interest journalism.

The Sydney Morning Herald and age Last week, a cosmetic surgeon successfully fought off a second attempt to force award-winning journalist Adele Ferguson to hand over drafts of an investigation before publication. The survey has since been published by the mastheads and broadcast on 60 minutes.

Mike Sneesby, the general manager of the Herald and The Age parent company Nine and ABC News boss Justin Stevens said the legal battle has highlighted why current defamation laws are no longer fit for purpose.

Nine Managing Director Mike Sneesby: “This week’s example is a sign that we need to act on this, and we need to act quickly.”Credit:Anna Kucera

“Compared to the rest of the world, Australia obviously has very unfavorable defamation legislation in terms of media companies being able to report on public interest journalism,” Sneesby said. “The way this is reflected in a media organization is significant costs…when we’re trying to deliver effective public interest journalism.”

In Australia, defamation laws are the responsibility of the state and territory parliaments. The laws have been criticized by the media as being archaic, failing to accommodate the rise of social and digital media, or providing greater protection for public interest reporting.

New South Wales became the first state to pass law reforms in 2020. The reforms, modeled on British law, included a ‘serious harm’ test to weed out minor claims before a costly trial and new defense of public interest. Attorney General Mark Dreyfus, a public proponent of defamation law reform and the public’s right to know, has yet to meet with the appropriate stakeholders in each state and territory to discuss the issue.

Stevens said Ferguson’s most recent legal fight was a “worrying development” for press freedom. “Adele Ferguson’s reporting with ABC Four Corners led to the Royal Banking Commission,” he said. “Imagine if the courts had been used as a means to stop this work, depriving Australians of much needed reform in the banking sector?

“Liability issues and journalism must be held at the highest level, but laws must not be used as a means to silence this journalism. And after an article has been published, defamation law should not be used to intimidate journalists and editors into avoiding difficult and difficult topics that are important to the public.

Michael Miller, executive chairman of News Corp Australasia, said the court ruling last week, which allowed Ferguson to publish his investigation, was “the right outcome for Australians’ right to know and the media’s ability to do their work without censorship”.

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