by Sarah Joseph
Followers of the Castan Centre Blog would know of the #twitdef imbroglio, ostensibly between the Editor-in-Chief of “the Australian” newspaper, Chris Mitchell, and University of Canberra journalism academic Julie Posetti. It is an interesting tale for the uninitiated, involving threats of a defamation suit over a series of tweets. For background, see my two earlier blogs here and here.
So … what has happened? Well, back in December Mitchell’s lawyers issued Posetti with demands which she, with the support of her university, refused. And since then … nothing. Which might sound fine, unless you happen to be Julie Posetti. She presently sits with a litigation threat over her head which could last for one year, or even (unlikely but maybe possible) three years. Her job as an academic researcher and public commentator on media issues could involve, and has involved, critiques of “the Australian” and certainly its parent company, News Ltd, which controls most mainstream print media in Australia and a significant amount of other media. As a fellow academic, I don’t envy Posetti’s position, as there could be perceived to be an implicit threat that she not cross some imaginary line in her commentary or else the defamation suit will be launched.
So, Mitchell’s hanging threat (as it hasn’t been withdrawn) is having a chilling effect on Posetti’s work and academic free speech. While he is within his legal rights to wait out the limitations period, it seems inappropriate for the editor of a national newspaper to be pressuring a journalism academic in this way, whether that pressure is intentional or not. Free speech is, after all, his bread and butter. As Julie Posetti herself comments:
“I’m sadly not surprised that Chris Mitchell seems determined to keep his legal action against me alive. If such threats were made against his newspaper by a litigant, he would no doubt argue that this was simply a strategy to silence critics and limit free speech. And that is precisely how I view Mitchell’s strategy. It is not only unbecoming of a senior journalist, it’s detrimental to the Right to Know campaign which News Limited champions in the name of media freedom.”
Chris Mitchell made it quite clear that he was bemused that Posetti and her employer, the University of Canberra, would risk litigation to defend against his allegations, when his demands were rejected. Three months later, the decent thing to do is to put up rather than shut up. Mitchell has surely received sufficient legal advice by now to enable him to know if his claims have a reasonable chance of being upheld in court and if he wants to be bothered with litigation. Mitchell, via the paper he edits, made his early position quite clear, indicating an apparent steely determination to sue (at the same time amplifying any “damage” caused by the original alleged defamatory tweets through the ironic Streisand effect). And in February, he reiterated to the Canberra Times that he had not dropped the action. Well, if you are going to sue Mr Mitchell, sue! If you are not, I guess you don’t have to make that position public … but at least tell Julie Posetti!