Rebel Wilson needs no introduction. After the launch of the monster hit Pitch Perfect 2, Woman’s Day and other Bauer Media publications published articles alleging that Rebel was a serial liar about her age and background and that she was lying to advance her career.

Rebel claimed that the articles had significantly impacted on her employment as an actress and caused her significant personal pain and anguish.

In Issue

  • Whether Rebel Wilson was defamed in articles published by Bauer Media Pty Ltd
  • Appropriate quantification of damages

The Background

The claim by Rebel was focused on articles published by Woman’s Day and other Bauer publications, including online - they alleged that she was a serial liar. This allegation appears to have been based on one unidentified source with an axe to grind and an internet article that was not reviewed.

Rebel claimed that after the articles were released that the upward trajectory of her career stalled.

The court had to consider if the articles were defamatory; if the defence of qualified privilege was available; if the circumstances of publication justified aggravated damages and a lifting of the cap on damages; and the extent of those damages.

The Decision at Trial

The jury found that the articles were defamatory and that the statutory defence of qualified privilege was not available. They also rejected a defence of triviality.

Dixon J, after reviewing the jury’s findings and considering the appropriate process, decided that the common law defence of qualified privilege was not made out.

Dixon J took the view that Bauer Media’s subjective intent was unreasonable; it ran a campaign calculated to generate commercial benefit; it knew that the imputations in the articles were false; it understood that the articles’ imputations would spread rapidly over the internet; and it kept the story going after Rebels tweets in response. No apology was made at trial.

Dixon J stated “The manner in which Bauer Media conducted its defence… repeatedly seeking to cast the articles as trivial and not to be taken seriously – sought to communicate a broader message that celebrity journalism of the type illustrated in this case was legitimate and justified”. Dixon J went on to state in regard to the Bauer Media approach post publication “…I have found the defendant’s conduct to have been lacking in bona fides, also found a basis for aggravated damages”.

In regard to the statutory cap which is part of the Uniform National Defamation Laws, Dixon J took a straightforward view of the section, lifting the cap due to the conduct of Bauer Media.

Rebel was awarded general and aggravated damages of $650,000 plus $3,917,472 in special damages.

In regard to the special damages, the court took a practical view as to the appropriate assessment of her circumstantial claim for loss of opportunity. Dixon J accepted that substantial damages were necessary to convince the public of the seriousness of the defamation. “The vindication of Ms Wilson’s reputation cannot be left to speculation”.

Implications for you

Don’t defend the indefensible or there will be consequences.

Journalism 101, check your sources and check the facts. “Celebrity journalism” needs to be based on facts, its impacts are not trivial.

Rebel Melanie Elizabeth Wilson v Bauer Media Pty Ltd & Another  [2017] VSC 521

Note: Bauer Media has recently lodged an appeal against this decision.