It has been a big week or so in the news. Planned beheadings in Martin Place, Australian planes attacking Islamic State, Tony Abbott addressing the UN Security Council and claiming IS has declared war on the world, ridiculous new powers for ASIO passing the House of Reps last night, and teenager Numan Haider attacking police officers and ultimately being shot dead himself.
You’d be forgiven for feeling a little unsettled about all this. It’s got half the population looking sideways, worried about terror attacks on our own turf. Now imagine for a minute how, erm, unsettled you’d feel if you picked up the paper and saw your own photograph on the front page identified as Numan Haider, the “Teenage Terrorist”.
On Thursday, Fairfax published a picture of Melbourne teenager Abu Bakar Alam on the front pages of The Age, Sydney Morning Herald and Canberra Times with a story about Haider. It labelled him the teenage terrorist. Mr Alam has nothing to do whatsoever with Mr Haider. Fairfax apparently lifted the image from Mr Alam’s Facebook page. Oops.
It published an apology straight away, but didn’t pull the paper from the stands. The damage to Mr Alam is unimaginable, and a defamation case by him against Fairfax would be virtually indefensible.
In short, yes a photograph can be defamatory. You can defame someone without naming them, or by giving them the wrong name. It is sufficient identification that there are people who will know from the image alone who the person is; in this case, Mr Alam. And yes, the damage can be substantial. Mr Alam now fears being misidentified as a terrorist in the midst of the greatest perceived terror threat in Australia in years. That has to suck, and whatever amount Fairfax ends up paying him won't undo the damage.