Joe Hockey must have bumped his head. We can’t think of any other reason why, as a Federal politician, he’d want to go around suing the media for defamation. The Federal treasurer has sued Fairfax over articles suggesting that he accepted payments in return for his attention or support. The headline was ‘treasurer for sale’.
It seems outrageous that politicians, those perennial mudslingers, could occupy the judicial system when they cop a nasty news headline, especially when most of the trashy crap you read in papers comes directly from their mouths. Logically, you’d think that they should check their personal rights at the door when they sign up for the job.
Well logic doesn’t write the law, and politicians can bring claims for defamation. But there are some good reasons that you don’t see more of them.
The first reason is that there is a strong defence to claims for defamation that relate to political matters. The gist is that the law of defamation shouldn’t inhibit the democratic process, which includes our right to call a politician a goose. The defence will only fail if the statements were made maliciously, or with a reckless disregard for the truth.
Speaking of truth, that’s another reason that more politicians don’t bring defamation claims. Truth is a complete defence. And by running that defence, the publisher gets an opportunity to dredge up all the politician’s dirty secrets in the public forum of the courts. If we have learned one thing from ICAC it’s that a lot of politicians have a lot of dirty secrets.
Maybe Joe Hockey thinks that Fairfax’s claims are too damaging to let them slip by. It’s a dangerous game he’s playing though. Not only are there strong defences available, the case gives Fairfax a chance to lead evidence on why it says it got the story right, possibly gives it the chance to crossexamine Hockey (fun!), and the claim itself continues to make headlines and remind everyone that Hockey was accused of being ‘for sale’ in the first place. If you ask us, it’s a lose-lose.