Defamation – “there could be a chilling effect”

The huge amount that a jury awarded Jordan Williams in his defamation case against Colin Craig has raised quite a few eyebrows.

In Craig’s ‘breathtaking’ $1.3m defamation damages could set New Zealand record, says legal expert Auckland University Associate Professor of Law Bill Hodge has a warning:

Hodge, who has written a book on defamation, said the fallout from the case could be so wide-ranging it could even have a chilling effect on media.

“There could be a chilling effect. If I’m an editor and I’m looking at my energetic reporters who are out there investigating, I’m going to say ‘just be careful’,” he said.

“There could be chilling in the sense of taking a second look at things. Editorial judgments may err on the side of caution rather than a ‘go for it’ attitude.”

I’m sure media companies will be looking at this case with a lot of interest, and it may well prompt re-evaluations of stories where defamation could be a potential issue.

It should be of interest to anyone who publishes or posts online. I’ve been threatened with defamation more than once, so of course I have to note how the courts currently deal with defamation.

Posting a comment on Facebook or tweeting is far from the same scale as a country wide letter box drop but it doesn’t rule out someone threatening defamation and possible taking action. It could be justified, or it could be vexatious, but in either case it could become a costly nuisance.

I’m sure Andrew Little has at least one eyebrow raised over the Craig award, as he is currently facing defamation action. All politicians are likely to take an interest given that they seek publicity and often try to damage the reputations of others.

Taking defamation cases as far as court is still likely to be relatively rare due to the costs and the risks. As Williams found out even if you win you risk a lot of exposure and some of that may be adverse.

Defamation law is important, but it could easily escalate – Craig has threatened defamation a number of times in the past and  as well as the just finished (for now) case he is involved in several other actions both initiated by him and against him. I think it is feasible that Craig could succeed in claiming defamation against him, but also lose other cases due to a disproportionate response.

Hodge raises a valid concern about a possible chilling effect, but more than the effects on media and the extra care they may take about what they publish, the biggest chills may come if  defamation is used as a political weapon, a form of ‘dirty politics’ escalated.

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7 Comments

  1. David

     /  2nd October 2016

    If I was Little I would be a bit panicked.

    Reply
    • Little may have avoided his current situation by retracting and apologising.

      It’s a bit more difficult retracting the delivery of one and a half million booklets.

      Reply
    • Iceberg

       /  2nd October 2016

      List of things for Little to panic about;

      106. Defamation awards.

      Reply
    • Gezza

       /  2nd October 2016

      Yep. I was expecting Little to issue a retraction at some future point before it got to Court anyway because absent an Auditor General investigation he’s got nothing.

      Once he’s issued one, I assume a defamation action would have to be withdrawn?

      Reply
      • I presume it would depend on whether the plaintiff thought an apology was sufficient redress.

        Reply
        • Gezza

           /  2nd October 2016

          Good point. An apology is probably less important. But even if a retraction confirms their repuation is intact, they may be able to pursue him for any claimed damages during the period it was under question because of his remarks, I guess.

          Reply
        • Hopefully not.
          Little went out of his way to defame a NZ couple with legitimate business interests.
          He deserves all he gets or rather he deserves all those he defamed get

          Reply

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