Legal experts warn that the Queensland Premier and Deputy Premier are taking a risk by suing radio host Alan Jones for defamation – particularly because Jones does not necessarily have to prove his allegations are true.
With just over a week before the January 31 state election, Queensland Premier Campbell Newman and Deputy Premier Jeff Seeney are suing Jones and Brisbane radio station 4BC over what they have called false and “sensational” allegations about political donations and a Queensland coal project.
In a statement of claim filed yesterday in the Supreme Court in Brisbane, Newman and Seeney claim they have each been “greatly injured in his credit and reputation” during Jones’s special 4BC Queensland election broadcasts on January 19, 20 and 21.
Jones revealed the pair were suing him on his Friday morning show, but didn’t sound fazed about being sued.
Nice to hear from you Mr Newman … you remain a bit of a political novice if you think that’s the way to win an election or to silence people, you need to actually think again, but thanks for writing.
The risks of suing
University of Sydney media law expert David Rolph said Newman and Seeney may find that by suing, they inadvertently help Jones’s cause.
“Defamation litigation is always risky because it draws attention to the very thing you’re suing about. So by suing, you’re giving publicity to those allegations,” Associate Professor Rolph said.
“With politically sensitive matters, especially during election campaigns, there’s always a concern that the best place to be judged on your reputation is not in a court room but at the ballot box. The fact that you’re drawing attention to these allegations at such a sensitive time is probably not terribly helpful.”
The Deputy Director of the Melbourne Law School’s Centre for Media and Communications Law, Jason Bosland, agreed, saying that “overall, I think it’s a bad move” from Newman and Seeney.
“One of the risks they face – and that anyone faces in suing – is that even if the allegations made against them are false, it doesn’t necessarily mean they’ll be vindicated in court,” Mr Bosland said.
Now that the statement of claim has been lodged in court, Jones will have to respond with a statement of defence. At that point, Newman and Seeney will have to decide whether to pursue the case – and that’s not as simple as it might seem.
“Defamation is quite technical and complex,” Mr Bosland said. “There are a range of possible defences that Jones might use: it might be freedom of political communication, it might be that what he said was the truth, it might be that it was fair comment or honest opinion, which are two similar defences.
"The point is, if Jones can show he has a reasonable prospect of establishing a valid defence, Newman and Seeney might decide it’s not worth proceeding, so might drop the case.
"The risk is that the public generally don’t understand that – so if for any reason the case is dropped or if the plaintiff [in this case Newman and Seeney] loses, they’re likely to think ‘what Jones said must have been true’, even if it wasn’t.”
To sue, or not to sue?
Queensland University of Technology senior law lecturer Peter Black said that the decision to sue “does seem to be a strange move on the part of the Premier and Deputy Premier”.
“I thought the way the Premier initially handled the claims at the start of this week, dismissing Jones as ‘a bloke from Sydney’ making old claims, was probably the best way to spin this,” Mr Black said.
“As a political strategy, filing a defamation action very much raises the risk of elevating the comments that Alan Jones made, which would probably have died away over the course of the election campaign. Instead, they’ve given the story oxygen and it will almost inevitably continue on for the rest of the campaign.”
But Associate Professor Rolph said it was not at all unusual for politicians to sue – or for Alan Jones to be sued.
“Australia has a very long history of politicians of all political persuasions suing for defamation and they are not infrequent users of defamation law today. Treasurer Joe Hockey is suing Fairfax, Bob Hawke famously sued Tony Abbott and Peter Costello famously sued - so we’re talking from prime ministers down.
"It’s also not the first time that Alan Jones has been sued for defamation. I think people in the media with high profiles become accustomed to being sued for defamation. So I think that might be a reason why he’s not fazed.”
Read more of The Conversation’s Queensland election 2015 coverage.