Australian Newspaper Editor Threatens Defamation Suit Over Tweet Paraphrasing What Someone Else Said
from the following-the-bouncing-legal-threats dept
There have been a bunch of big stories lately — with Homeland Security’s domain name seizures and the whole Wikileaks situation — so I hadn’t been paying much attention to an ongoing story down in Australia, concerning a threat by the Editor-in-Chief of The Australian Newspaper, Chris Mitchell, to sue a journalism professor, Julie Posetti, over a series of tweets she wrote at a conference trying to paraphrase what former Australian reporter Asa Wahlquist was saying on a panel.
The details are somewhat convoluted, but the link above lays them out quite carefully. Basically, there was a journalism conference, and one of the panels was discussing how the media was covering “climate change” as a story. Apparently, the general sense among everyone involved was “that climate change is real, and crucially important, and inadequately reported.” Wahlquist, on the panel, noted that one of the reasons why she had resigned was that she felt pressure in what she was writing on such topics. Posetti summarized that in a series of quick tweets. As is quite typical for those live tweeting an event, she paraphrased what was being said. I do this too. It’s about the only practical way to post in real time and stick with the 140 character limit. It does appear that she may have, just slightly, misheard one thing that was said by Wahlquist, and implied that Mitchell had directly influenced what Wahlquist wrote about. From a recording that later came out, it appears that Wahlquist was a little less specific, stating: “The other thing that was happening at The Australian before I left was the editor-in-chief and the editors (were?) becoming much more prescriptive and you saw that in the lead-up to the election, where you were actually being told what to write.”
Posetti simplified this to state:
“Wahlquist: ‘In the lead up to the election the Ed in Chief was increasingly telling me what to write.’ It was prescriptive.”
That’s a pretty close paraphrase, but Mitchell took great exception to this (and two other tweets that really were more expressing opinions), and said that he never put pressure on Wahlquist. And here’s where The Streisand Effect enters. Not too many people had seen Posetti’s tweets — or really paid too much attention to them. Until Mitchell went into the pages of his own newspaper and threatened to sue Posetti for defamation — which was indeed followed up by a legal threat letter (pdf).
Suddenly, this off-handed paraphrase of a tweet got a lot more attention (reasonably so), especially when the editor of a major newspaper threatens to sue someone for defamation over a tweet paraphrasing what someone else said. Mitchell later claimed that Wahlquist claimed she had not said what Posetti had tweeted, but once the audio became clear, it seemed pretty clear that Posetti’s tweets were pretty damn close — and if there was that one tiny slip up, it’s hardly worth a defamation lawsuit. And, really, if Mitchell has anyone to complain about, it’s Wahlquist — though, again, only if what she said was really inaccurate. Jonathan Holmes, of Austalia’s ABC, summarizes the whole mess and suggests that Mitchell needs to calm down and realize that if Wahlquist said what she said, he should at least be realizing that some of his reporters felt that way, and strive to fix it, rather than threaten the messenger.
Looking back, it’s really amazing how many mistakes were made here. There was overreacting to a tweet. Blaming the messenger. Calling way more attention to it than necessary. Actually carrying through with legal threats and then denying that any of the original statements of opinion could be valid. Oh, and we left out the bit where Mitchell’s own paper has railed against Australian defamation law, saying that they “act to suppress free speech and enrich lawyers…” Oh, really now?