Rebel decision ‘editor’s worst nightmare’
The New Zealand magazine industry could be in for a shake-up after Hollywood star Rebel Wilson was awarded millions in damages for defamation, experts say.
The Pitch Perfect actress Wilson successfully argued a series of eight articles published by Australia’s Bauer Media in 2015 incorrectly portrayed her as a serial liar, misleading people about her real name, age and details about her childhood.
In June, a jury sided with the star, who claimed the information presented in print and online put the brakes on her Hollywood career, including being dumped from two high-profile movie roles.
Last week, a Melbourne court ordered Bauer Media, the publisher of Woman’s Day, to pay Wilson AU$4.5m (NZ$5m) in damages.
Justice John Dixon told the Supreme Court of Victoria the defamation case was ‘‘unprecedented’’ in Australia because of its international reach.
‘‘Substantial vindication can only be achieved by an award of damages that underscores that Ms Wilson’s reputation as an actress of integrity was wrongly damaged in a manner that affected her marketability in a huge, worldwide marketplace,’’ he said.
Experts in New Zealand say it is likely the impact of this decision would be felt here.
‘‘I’m sure this will send of bit of a shock wave throughout this section of the magazine industry,’’ says former New Idea editor Caroline Botting.
‘‘This is every editor’s worst nightmare and they’ll undoubtedly be even more cautious of which sources they use for stories,’’ she says.
The journalist who wrote the story about Wilson told the court it was common knowledge Australian celebrity magazines employed ‘‘cheque book journalism’’ to get some interviews, and that the anonymous source she used asked for between AU$2000 and AU$8000 for their information.
‘‘This case opens a window on some very scuzzy journalism,’’ Wellington media lawyer Steven Price says.
However he does not believe this case will set any great precedent on liability in the local industry.
‘‘I don’t think we’re prone to quite the same tabloid excesses, or the same celebrity culture. Our readerships are much smaller, and we don’t tend to defame people who command $5m movie contracts.
‘‘The damages are eye-watering – perhaps four times as big as any there have been in Australia or New Zealand – but that’s not likely to be common... when mistakes are made, cases are usually settled at much less expense.’’
Wendyl Nissen, who has edited Bauer Media’s New Zealand editions of Woman’s Day and The Australian Women’s Weekly and still writes for the New Zealand Woman’s Weekly, says the local industry has largely moved away from the scandalous reporting styles of the past.
‘‘There was a period there, quite a few years ago, when magazines did get away with a lot of stuff. It was pretty much fair game, you could go out and say whatever you wanted... as an editor, you had to make the decision whether you could live with that.
‘‘But most editors who are working in tabloid now know not to be that reckless.’’
She says a lot of time and energy has gone into training magazine staff around the legalities of their work, and this case will remind them of the importance of this.
‘‘I think it will be pause for thought for a lot of journalists,’’ she adds.
Rebel Wilson won millions in damages against Australia’s Bauer Media.