Rebel de­ci­sion ‘ed­i­tor’s worst night­mare’

The Press - - Culture - BRIDGET JONES

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.

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