Defamation in the Twitter Age – the Treasurer Hockey Case

Federal Treasurer Joe Hockey recently took on publishing giant Fairfax in relation to a series of articles published in the Sydney Morning Herald, The Age and The Canberra Times.  The articles made allegations that Mr Hockey was taking donations for the Liberal Party through a “secretive” fundraising body from a “select group” in exchange for “privileged access” to Mr Hockey.  The articles were published in the newspapers, and promoted by an advertising poster, and through online platforms, including by providing links to the article through Twitter.  Most of the articles contained the words “Treasurer for Sale“or “Treasurer Hockey for Sale“.

Mr Hockey sued Fairfax, claiming the articles were defamatory because they implied that:

  1. He either accepted bribes, or was prepared to accept bribes, to influence the decisions he made as Treasurer of the Commonwealth of Australia; and/or
  1. He corruptly sells privileged access to himself to a select group which includes business people and business lobbyists in return for donations to the Liberal Party.

The law of defamation relates to the protection of ones reputation.  A claim of defamation will be proved if information of a defamatory nature is published in relation to an individual (and in some limited circumstances, a company) and communicated to persons other than that individual.  The classic example is a defamatory newspaper article.  Information will be considered to be defamatory where it tends to injure the reputation of the individual.

In its decision, the Court distinguished between:

  1. The newspaper print articles and the online articles, which were found not to be defamatory; and
  1. The advertising poster and tweets, which were found to be defamatory.

The Court found that the newspaper and online articles were not defamatory, because reading the articles as a whole, including the headlines, the ordinary reasonable reader would consider that Mr Hockey was engaging in a form of political fundraising where he was offering business access to himself in exchange for a political donation, and this was being conducted in a secretive manner and was not disclosed in accordance with the requirements of the electoral laws, but that such conduct would not constitute corruption or accepting bribes.

However, the Court found that the advertising poster and the tweets, which both contained only the headlines “Treasurer for Sale” or “Treasurer Hockey for Sale”, were defamatory, because of the circumstances in which they would be seen.  The poster would have been seen at newsstands and in newsagencies by members of the public who would not necessarily read the relevant articles.  Likewise, the tweets may have been viewed by persons who would not necessarily click the accompanying links and read the articles. The Court found the headlines implied to the ordinary reasonable reader that Mr Hockey was taking, or willing to take, payments which were influencing his decisions as Treasurer of the Commonwealth.

Mr Hockey was awarded damages by the Court of $120,000.00 for the newsstand poster and $80,000.00 for the tweets.

In the social media age, this is an interesting decision, as traditionally, the headline of an article could not be considered in isolation from the content of the article.  With a microblogging platform such as Twitter, it is impossible to display more than a short headline to garner interest and a link to the relevant article.  The Federal Court’s decision in this case provides a warning against using headlines or short blurbs on Twitter that may be taken out of context, misleading or defamatory.

 If you require advice regarding defamation, contact McLaughlins Lawyers, your Gold Coast Lawyers.

Author: Sonaaz Farhadi-Fard

Partner: Ian Kennedy

Date: 14/09/2015