The meltdown at the Oz continues, with an “offer you can’t refuse” from editor-in-chief Chris Mitchell to academic and twitterer Julie Posetti. Conceding that Posetti accurately reported statements by former environment reporter Asa Wahlquist in two brief tweets, Mitchell is nonetheless demanding an apology, and now offers a re-educational tour of the News Ltd newsroom as part of the deal.
This behavior would be beyond bizarre even from an ordinary corporation. To sue a private individual for reporting, in good faith, a statement made in public represents a threat that could be applied to just about anyone. It’s worth bearing in mind that there is no longer any distinction in Australian law between libel and slander, so the law applies equally to someone who repeats, down at the pub, something they heard at a public event. A company that tried such a thing (the only comparable case I can recall is the Gunns fiasco in Tasmania) would rightly be derided.
But for a newspaper, and one that has repeatedly pushed the bounds of defamation in its dealings with critics (see the sidebar for a relatively mild example), to undertake such actions is a spectacular assault on freedom of speech, one that only the Murdoch press, or maybe the state-controlled media in places like Singapore, would be capable of. It’s hard to see how any self-respecting journalist can continue to work for this deplorable operation.
In this context, it’s striking that Mitchell has apparently not sued Wahlquist or obtained a retraction (he has received a denial of claims that were never made, such as that he personally called or emailed her). Presumably, at least Oz journalists who have been happy to join the hunt against tweeters and bloggers are not yet ready to take on their own colleagues in this way.