The Treasurer of Australia, a man who is really named Joe Hockey, is suing Fairfax Media (the Australian newspaper company not owned by Rupert Murdoch) for defamation over a headline they used, which is leading to some interesting news dispatches:
In his ruling, Justice Richard White found the articles published by The Sydney Morning Herald, The Age and The Canberra Times were not defamatory. But, he ruled, the tweets and newspaper posters associated with the story were. That’s despite the tweets having used the same “Treasurer for sale” headline in the print editions, followed by a hyperlink to the full article. White assumed that most of those who saw the headline in the newspaper would have received all the context necessary to interpret its meaning from the story that followed. He assumed those who only saw the tweets but did not click through would not. And so the Twitter publication was found to be defamatory. For similar reasons, the newspaper posters distributed by Fairfax were also ruled defamatory. In response to this, Fairfax pleaded a qualified privilege defence to the defamation, but this was defeated by a finding of malice against SMHeditor-in-chief Darren Goodsir (largely based on emails he’d sent to other Fairfax staffers).
Twitter places a 140-character limit on posts. This forces tweeters to use short, telegram-like updates to encourage people to click through to the longer article. These updates will necessarily be less nuanced than what writers can produce with no character limit, even putting aside the fact that posts on Twitter have to compete for reader attention with hundreds of other updates on people’s feeds (thus encouraging curiosity-gap headlines, frequently referred to as “clickbait”).
“The Hockey decision means you clickbait at your peril,” Bruce Guthrie, a former Herald Sun editor-in-chief and Age editor who’s now the editorial director at digital title The New Daily, told Crikey. “The more I think about the judgment, perhaps it’s more cutting edge than some of us first thought.”