Mark Latham caused a bit of a stir in the press last
week (to put it mildly). He took exception to an SMH piece by Lisa
Pryor in which she admitted that anti-depressants help her manage
parenthood. He launched an aggressive personal attack against her
in the AFR.
Personal attacks in opinion pieces are relatively common. The
question is how far a journalist can go without fear of legal
Philosophically, if you want to have free speech then you need
to accept that you'll be offended sometimes. In most cases the
answer is to exercise the right of reply, rather than sue. There
has been no shortage of reaction to Latham's article, including
in the AFR. Hurray! Lively debate. Vibrant society. But there are
(rightly) limits to this. Defamation is one of them.
Latham's article is contemptuous of Pryor, and plainly
defamatory. Journalists like Latham can plead the defence of
"honest opinion", which will defeat many defamation
claims. But we don't think it would fly this time.
Yes, the article is an expression of his opinion and it appears
to be honestly held. But that's not enough on its own. It also
needs to relate to a matter of public interest and be based on
substantially true material.
Public interest is a tricky concept. It's not precisely
defined. The fact that Pryor published the article to which Latham
responded first is probably sufficient to satisfy this element.
The real problem for Latham will be the facts underpinning his
opinions. His opinions are based on some fairly obvious
misconstructions of Pryor's article. He makes unfounded
assumptions about the reasons for Pryor's use of
antidepressants. And where Pryor refers to the 'glorious
disaster' of raising kids, Latham terms it a
'nightmare' and accuses her of demonising children. An
honest opinion defence would likely fail on this point.
When writing or publishing opinion pieces, it's critical to
know the qualifications to the available defences. Don't
overlook the public interest element and check the underlying facts
For Latham, it could end up being an expensive day at the (home)
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