Within the Australian legal system defamation falls under the legal heading of 'torts', thus meaning a civil wrong. Australian defamation laws are primarily State and Territory laws (not Federal) and the laws, including available defences, vary within each separate jurisdiction. The law of defamation is supposed to offer solace to an individual who has had their reputation damaged due to defamation by either slander or libel. If defamation has been proven the normal mechanism of the courts is to award the plaintiff an exorbent amount of money in compensation (Pearson, 1997 pp. 96-97).
In the publishing and broadcasting arena the freedom of expression plays a vital role in the democratic process. It is here where the law of defamation can have a chilling-effect on freedom of expression and speech on Australian journalists. Most individuals are unable to bring about a defamation action, as it can be extremely expensive, costing up to several hundred thousand dollars in legal fees alone.
Defamation cases are normally a contest between the rich and powerful individuals or companies taking on media organizations (Pearson, 1997 p 98).
Due to the high expenses a plaintiff filing a defamation suit is liable to incur, it brings about two main problems. Firstly, poor and less powerful individuals within society are unable to file for defamation to try and compensate themselves for a loss of reputation. More importantly however, it also means that freelance journalists and smaller media institutions that do not have the resources to fund a defamation case are able to be intimidated by wealthy plaintiffs. As a result of this situation it means that often the smaller media institutions have to make do with a settlement outside the court, as they are unable to afford to defend a winnable case. The above scenario is what many describe...