In the #MeToo era journalists have rushed to break new stories of salacious allegations against celebrities believing the defence of “public interest” will protect them against defamation suits. An Australian judge just ruled that there are boundaries.
Accomplished and esteemed actor Geoffrey Rush won a defamation suit in which the judge ruled the media article accusing Mr. Rush of misconduct was “improper and unjustified.” The judge further characterized the article as “reckless” and “sensationalized.” The final financial reward to Geoffrey Rush is yet to be determined but is set at a minimum of $850,000.
The question now facing journalists may shift to whether or not a “new” story compromises reportable “news” when based solely on sources alleging some kind of sexual misconduct. The hashtag #MeToo may no longer protect them in court where a judge or jury will decide liability based on the rule of law instead of just looking at how many likes an article got on Twitter.
The Guardian reports that Justice Michael Wigney quoted extensively from Shakespeare’s “King Lear” in his verdict.
Unfortunately this leaves an over 200 page long verdict open to an appeal in which The Daily Telegraph can question how much Shakespeare had to do with their article. Mr. Rush’s accuser claimed her abuse happened during a production of King Lear, from which the judge quoted. While this puts the lengthy verdict in context, appeals can be won when judges take too much poetic licence.
While most falsely accused people want to pursue defamation cases at some point, the time and expense of such cases usually blocks their access to justice.
Those who make false accusations rarely see any consequence for their actions. Any attempt to hold an accuser accountable for perjury or public mischief in filing a false complaint is met with condemnation that it will have a “chilling effect” on actual victims. Meanwhile, there has never been a coherent explanation as to how real victims need to worry about being caught lying.
Geoffrey Rush says he has been unemployable since The Telegraph published their article. Outside of court Mr. Rush reportedly said “there are no winners in this case.”
Dubbed “King Leer” by The Telegraph, the formerly venerated actor will have to wait to see if the current verdict is upheld and, if so, if he can somehow recover his reputation. The paper can tally up their receipts for how much money they made breaking the story but will have to wait to find out how much money they pay for it.
While Geoffrey Rush has scored a victory for now, there are many more like him who will never get their day in court. The harsh reality is that by the time an accused person has a fair hearing too many years have gone by and too few people care anymore. By the time a falsely accused man gets vindication it’s usually too late.
Meanwhile, for news outlets recklessly chasing gossip, the show must go on.