FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

Damaging Damages: Rebel Wilson’s Defamation Case

There is very little to be gained pondering whether celebrity journalism should be protected with the zeal that some of its advocates do. A person with the dirt-directed fanaticism of a Piers Morgan is not to be treasured and his court losses in defamation actions have, at times, warranted jubilation. But nor do the victors – in one notable case, Naomi Campbell – warrant our cheers either. Both, in one sense, are made for each other.

The problem, as with anything to do with areas of expression, is how far celebrity acts as a veil to draw upon criticism and comment. Orgies, proclivities and perversions, while interesting to some members of the public, are hardly in the public interest. What a clueless celebrity does with her money or sense is hardly of interest to the finer interests of a deliberating public. The only thing left in all of this is pure, unalloyed malice.

The Australian actress Rebel Wilson has had a stroke of astonishing judicial luck. In June this year, a jury of six examined a series of eight articles published in Woman’s Day and Australian Women’s Weekly suggesting, in no uncertain terms, that Wilson was a “serial liar” on matters touching on age, name and other aspects of her background.

Bauer Media, the umbrella company owning both publications, were also told that they had published the articles knowing the assertions to be untrue, yet still maximising the print and online run to catch website traffic with the release of Pitch Perfect 2 in May 2015.

Justice Dixon was sympathetic to Wilson, suggesting that the dizzyingly large award of $4.56 million was necessary “to convince the public that Ms Wilson is not a dishonest person and bestow vindication in accordance with the jury’s verdict.”

Not that Bauer Media had a confident legal foot to stand on. Australian jurisdictions tend to be happy hunting grounds for defamation actions. Even if Bauer Media could show that qualified privilege applied (effectively a duty to publish defamatory information), it would still fail for having been published for a large audience. It would also have to be “reasonable”.

What strikes a chord of unintended humour in the verdict is the very assertion that a thespian could possibly have a complaint about being accused of lying, averse, as it were, to the verity of things. The very basis of acting, it might be argued, is the grand lie, the illusion, artful dissimulation. To suffer damages for being accused of engaging in exactly what one excels at is an odd measure by any stretch.

This makes Justice Dixon’s ruling on marketability even more peculiar. “Ms Wilson’s reputation as an actress of integrity was wrongly damaged in a manner that affected her marketability in a huge, worldwide marketplace.”

This entailed accepting the tenuous argument that the articles had a direct, causal relationship with a supposed career dive. (Wilson, before taking a different angle, initially insisted that missing out on roles in such wonders as Kung Fu Panda and Trolls was directly attributable to the articles.)

The good judge also decided to engage in something that would have even made a reader of tarot cards blush. Wilson, the judge was swayed, could have ended up with anywhere from up to four roles after Pitch Perfect 2.

Each could garner up to $US5 million each, or so the astrologists of the celebrity scene suggested. Justice Dixon, after chewing over the issue of roles, went for three (oh, why not?), discounted the value accounting for agent fees, tax and Wilson’s relationship with her company, yielding a handsome fee of just under $US3 million (a tickle under $4 million in Australian currency). General damages, comprising aggravated damages, were added to the ledger, topping $650,000, making the payout a truly renting one for Bauer Media and the largest in Australian defamation history.

The media company evidently did itself few favours. It had refused an offer of settlement with Wilson for a distinctly more modest $200,000. It had refused to provide a right of reply, or apologise, and bore a good set of fangs against her during the 20 days of legal proceedings. It was certainly personal for Wilson, who claimed that Bauer Media had “viciously tried to take me down with a series of false articles.”

Plato expended some effort to explain why the performing poet or thespian would have no place in his ideal Republic, largely because anyone who fabricates a role, a sort of homo faber of identity, must be treated with due suspicion:

“It seems, then, that if a man, who through clever training can become anything and imitate anything, should arrive in our city, wanting to give a performance of his poems, we should bow down before him as someone holy, wonderful, and pleasing, but we should tell him that there is no one like him in our city and that it isn’t lawful for there to be. We should pour myrrh on his head, crown him with wreaths, and send him way to another city” (The Republic, Book III, 398a).

Admittedly, Plato left room for a concession: that “we ourselves should employ a more austere and less pleasure-giving poet and story-teller, one who would imitate the speech of a more decent person and who would tell his stories in accordance with the patterns we laid down when we first undertook the education of our soldiers.”

In Wilson’s case, she has received myrrh on her head, crowned and duly congratulated in pursuing the press jackals with such enthusiasm. Not sending her on her way or perhaps admitting her as one of the approved story tellers of her age, may well curtail an already uninteresting area of journalistic snark – but it would be foolish to wholeheartedly rejoice in the demise of the errant gossip scribblers.

More articles by:

Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne. Email: bkampmark@gmail.com

September 20, 2018
Michael Hudson
Wasting the Lehman Crisis: What Was Not Saved Was the Economy
John Pilger
Hold the Front Page, the Reporters are Missing
Kenn Orphan
The Power of Language in the Anthropocene
Paul Cox – Stan Cox
Puerto Rico’s Unnatural Disaster Rolls on Into Year Two
Rajan Menon
Yemen’s Descent Into Hell: a Saudi-American War of Terror
Russell Mokhiber
Nick Brana Says Dems Will Again Deny Sanders Presidential Nomination
Nicholas Levis
Three Lessons of Occupy Wall Street, With a Fair Dose of Memory
Steve Martinot
The Constitutionality of Homeless Encampments
Kevin Zeese - Margaret Flowers
The Aftershocks of the Economic Collapse Are Still Being Felt
Jesse Jackson
By Enforcing Climate Change Denial, Trump Puts Us All in Peril
George Wuerthner
Coyote Killing is Counter Productive
Mel Gurtov
On Dealing with China
Dean Baker
How to Reduce Corruption in Medicine: Remove the Money
September 19, 2018
Bruce E. Levine
When Bernie Sold Out His Hero, Anti-Authoritarians Paid
Lawrence Davidson
Political Fragmentation on the Homefront
George Ochenski
How’s That “Chinese Hoax” Treating You, Mr. President?
Cesar Chelala
The Afghan Morass
Chris Wright
Three Cheers for the Decline of the Middle Class
Howard Lisnoff
The Beat Goes On Against Protest in Saudi Arabia
Nomi Prins 
The Donald in Wonderland: Down the Financial Rabbit Hole With Trump
Jack Rasmus
On the 10th Anniversary of Lehman Brothers 2008: Can ‘IT’ Happen Again?
Richard Schuberth
Make Them Suffer Too
Geoff Beckman
Kavanaugh in Extremis
Jonathan Engel
Rather Than Mining in Irreplaceable Wilderness, Why Can’t We Mine Landfills?
Binoy Kampmark
Needled Strawberries: Food Terrorism Down Under
Michael McCaffrey
A Curious Case of Mysterious Attacks, Microwave Weapons and Media Manipulation
Elliot Sperber
Eating the Constitution
September 18, 2018
Conn Hallinan
Britain: the Anti-Semitism Debate
Tamara Pearson
Why Mexico’s Next President is No Friend of Migrants
Richard Moser
Both the Commune and Revolution
Nick Pemberton
Serena 15, Tennis Love
Binoy Kampmark
Inconvenient Realities: Climate Change and the South Pacific
Martin Billheimer
La Grand’Route: Waiting for the Bus
John Kendall Hawkins
Seymour Hersh: a Life of Adversarial Democracy at Work
Faisal Khan
Is Israel a Democracy?
John Feffer
The GOP Wants Trumpism…Without Trump
Kim Ives
The Roots of Haiti’s Movement for PetroCaribe Transparency
Dave Lindorff
We Already Have a Fake Billionaire President; Why Would We want a Real One Running in 2020?
Gerry Brown
Is China Springing Debt Traps or Throwing a Lifeline to Countries in Distress?
Pete Tucker
The Washington Post Really Wants to Stop Ben Jealous
Dean Baker
Getting It Wrong Again: Consumer Spending and the Great Recession
September 17, 2018
Melvin Goodman
What is to be Done?
Rob Urie
American Fascism
Patrick Cockburn
The Adults in the White House Trying to Save the US From Trump Are Just as Dangerous as He Is
Jeffrey St. Clair - Alexander Cockburn
The Long Fall of Bob Woodward: From Nixon’s Nemesis to Cheney’s Savior
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail