The editor of The Australian – Rupert Murdoch’s flagship newspaper in Australia which is distributed nationwide – has threatened to sue journalism lecturer Julie Posetti over tweets she made last week that he claims are defamatory.
Chris Mitchell’s threatened legal action is not the first in history over Twitter postings, but is unique in Australian experience.
It’s a remarkable case in many ways.
Julie Posetti's tweet re Ms Wahlquist's comments
Last Thursday Ms Posetti was tweeting live from the audience of a conference about journalism at the University of Technology in Sydney. She posted a few tweets commenting on a presentation by Asa Wahlquist, formerly rural affairs reporter for the Australian.
The Australian itself quoted one of the ‘offending’ tweets in an article published yesterday: The Australian’s Chris Mitchell to sue Julie Posetti for defamation. It’s not clear whether this tweet is the sole basis for Mr Mitchell’s legal threat:
“Walhquist: ‘In the lead up to the election the Ed in Chief was increasingly telling me what to write.’ It was prescriptive.”
In another tweet (this one reported by the ABC) Ms Posetti claims Walhquist said:
“‘It was absolutely excruciating. It was torture': Asa Walhquist on fleeing The Australian after being stymied in covering #climate.“
Here’s an extract from a report in Crikey by Andrew Dodd The ‘torture’ of writing about climate change at The Oz (emphasis added):
Wahlquist, the long-time science and rural affairs writer for The Australian, accused Mitchell of controlling coverage of climate change because he believes those who subscribe to the “eco-fascist line” that humans have induced climate change are “aiming to destroy everything he loves and values”.
Wahlquist has been a respected rural affairs journalist for more than 20 years, formerly working at the ABC and The Sydney Morning Herald. She won a Walkley Award and the coveted Peter Hunt Eureka Prize for her coverage of complex scientific stories. She joined The Australian 14 years ago, and joked yesterday she may have been the only person in the building who had a science degree. She resigned two months ago and now works as a freelancer.
Despite her qualifications, Wahlquist says she self-censored stories on the human causes of climate change fearing they would not be run. She described this as “professionally compromising” and “unbearable”.
Wahlquist noted the irony in Rupert Murdoch’s quest to reduce carbon emissions at his various News Limited companies around the world, while the editor-in-chief of one of his flagship newspapers appears to doubt that humans are responsible for global warming.
“The one bit of good news from this is that it shows that News Limited editors are independent,” she said.
If this was accurately reported, I trust Ms Wahlquist made the last comment with tongue-in-cheek.
Chris Mitchell: Australian Twit of the Year?
It’s my observation that when the Murdoch Empire requires uniformity, it gets uniformity – in trumps. Did anyone notice a single News Corp editor who opposed the invasions of Afghanistan in 2001 or Iraq in 2003, said so publicly and survived in his/her job? If anyone knows instances of this I’d like to be to be told and I’ll correct my record promptly. As things stand, I have the distinct impression that support for these appalling, divisive and illegal wars attracted 100% NewsCorp editorial compliance, worldwide.
If Murdoch’s media empire now purports to be ‘even-handed’ or ‘aiming for balance’ on the issue of climate change, I’d say it’s because Mr Murdoch and his backers speak with forked tongue on that issue. Murdoch & co claim to be concerned about anthropogenic global warming, but set loose attack dogs like Andrew Bolt (a particularly obnoxious, well-promoted Australian ‘climate sceptic’) and Fox News (’nuff said) to undermine consensus for action. Let’s get real. This is clearly no accident. Murdoch knows how to fire staff if he so chooses – and there’s always reform school. Mixed signals from the Murdoch media on the challenge posed by climate change are an indication of conscious planning.
Back to the storm in twitterverse, currently running on the hashtags #twitdef and #posettigate. A few comments of my own…
First, I find it extraordinary that no exact transcipt – or recording – seems to be available of what Asa Wahlquist actually said. Why not? She was speaking at a journalism conference for heavens sake!
Second, according to the Australian’s own report, Chris Mitchell made his decision to threaten legal action without himself being sure exactly what Asa Wahlquist did say:
“Asa may or may not have said what the tweeter alleges. She denies to me that she did. But either way the allegations are a lie and Asa has admitted as much. …There is no protection from the law in repeating accurately allegations falsely made. Asa works from home and I have neither seen her nor spoken to her in years, as anyone on the paper would attest.“
Julie Posetti: journalist, lecturer, tweeter & human being
It seems bizarre that Mitchell doesn’t appear to care whether Ms Posetti’s reports of Ms Wahlquist comments were accurate or not. Surely that’s of central importance? If suing reporters for accurately reporting another persons’ comments ever became the norm, social media and mainstream journalism would both grind to a halt. Mitchell himself, apparently, said back in 2004: “Defamation law as it stands has done grave damage to public culture in Australia”. More Newspeak?
Third, in the aftermath of Editor Mitchell’s legal threat, The Australian itself – along with the News Corp media as a whole – continues to behave like the bloated, outdated, incompetent, laughable behemoth that critical observers know it to be.
The story was reported in the Australian online which repeated the alleged defamation. This led a few observers to speculate whether Mitchell plans to sue his own newspaper as well?!
It was also covered by The Australian in Caroline Overington‘s Media Diary – see Australia’s first Twitter defamation case. After reading Ms Overington’s brief article I decided to post a polite but critical comment. I composed the comment, entered my details and clicked submit, after first taking the trouble to read the terms and conditions of commenting:
“We welcome your comments. All comments should be concise, focus specifically on the topic for discussion and are submitted for possible publication on the condition that they may be edited. Comments that are derogatory toward the blogger or at other comments, or those which may potentially incite racial hatred or violence, are defamatory or in contempt of court, will not be published. Please provide a screen name and suburb/location – these will be published . We also require a working email address – not for publication, but for verification.”
I waited for my comment to be approved. And I waited. Then I checked and to my surpise noticed that none of the articles in Media Diary seem to have any approved comments. So I tweeted Caroline directly:
“@overingtonc Can’t see ANY comments on ANY articles in The Australian’s ‘Media Diary’. Is the comments form only for show? #twitdef #auspol”
A Murdoch-approved 'Media Diary' - takes it all (except for comments)
Amazingly, I got a reply:
“@SydWalker i haven’t figured out a way to turn it off, but the diary doesn’t take comments, sadly.“
I couldn’t resist tweeting back 140 characters of gratuitous advice:
“@overingtonc Try an ad in Craigslist perhaps? “Attractive Bondi blonde needs help switching off comments in blog” #twitdef #auspol #newscorp“
Caroline's missing Rolodex?
Ms Overington’s bio describes her as a “senior writer and columnist with The Australian… two-time winner of the Walkley Award for investigative journalism (2004 and 2006) and a winner of the Sir Keith Murdoch Award for Excellence in Journalism”.
That probably entitles her to seek assistance from NewsCorp’s IT Department on complex technical matters such as switching off comments. (She might even dive into the new paradigm and allow comments!) All she need do is call for help.
But can she find her rolodex?
One final comment.
Civilised society has a legal foundation, but anyone who thinks it is only about law has a demented view. Most of the time, conflicts are – and should be – resolved without recourse to the courts. In cases such as this there are such things as clarifications, explanations, retractions and apologies.
Ms Posetti stated yesterday – soon after publication of The Australian’s article announcing the editor’s defamation threat – that she had yet to be contacted by News Corp about this incident by phone, email or via Twitter.
Legal action should be the last step in an unresolved grievance – not the first act of petulance. Right now, Mr Mitchell looks like a puffed-up tin-pot dictator throwing a tantrum. It’s not a pretty sight.
If he wants to stop the sniggers, he should stop behaving like a prat.
Not everyone at The Australian sees red over tweets they consider to be inaccurate
CORRECTION AND APOLOGY
Caroline Overington tweeted me after this article was published to inform me that she is a redhead, not a blonde.
After de-misting my spectacles I can see she is entirely correct.
My sincere apologies for any distress this inadvertent error may have caused Ms Overington, her family and her testy editor.