Two are worth $80,000 according to Justice White, who yesterday handed down his decision in the defamation case brought by Treasurer Joe Hockey against Fairfax Media.
The dispute arose following the publication in May 2014 of an article in the Sydney Morning Herald, The Age and The Canberra Times, claiming Mr Hockey was providing “privileged access” in return for donations to the Liberal Party through a secretive fundraising body. The Sydney Morning Herald promoted the article with a poster, featuring in large, bold words: “Treasurer for Sale”. Similarly, the article was promoted by The Age through its Twitter account. On 5 May 2014, two tweets from The Age provided a hyperlink to the story. The first read, “Treasurer Hockey for sale” and the second, “Treasurer for Sale: Joe Hockey offers privileged access”.
Justice White considered each tweet to contain an imputation that Mr Hockey “corruptly solicited payments to influence his decisions as Treasurer of the Commonwealth of Australia”. Notably, his Honour addressed each of the 140-character-or-less messages as autonomous publications with the effect that the meaning of each tweet was determined independently of the article to which it provided a hyperlink. This was based on the recognition that “[s]ome may read the tweet without going further”. Indeed, during the trial counsel for Mr Hockey referred to evidence that of the Age’s 280,000 or so Twitter followers, only 789 downloaded the associated feature article.
Mr Hockey was awarded a $200,000 in damages “to signal to the public the vindication of the applicant’s reputation”, $80,000 of which was earmarked as relating to the two tweets.
The decision confirms a shift in judicial views of the role of Twitter. Justice White rejected analogies between Twitter and a billboard outside a newsagent. Instead, his Honour recognised that Twitter was an independent medium for disseminating material to a wide audience, which may not overlap with those who buy the newspaper publication. It could attract a separate action for defamation.
While the metes and bounds of the relationship between tweets and formal press publications will continue to be tested, it is clear that the value of a tweet is on the rise.