Australia's defamation laws are there to protect individuals from offensive and slanderous publications, but this is no easy task. There is no hard and fast rule on what amounts to defamation, and a lot depends on the circumstances of each case. We take a look at some recent cases from around Australia to shed some light on this dynamic area of law.
NEW SOUTH WALES | Tailor's gunrunning reputation mended
Zoef v Nationwide News Pty Ltd  NSWCA 283
Mr Tony Zoef brought a case for defamation against Nationwide News, for publications that claimed he had an alter ego as a gunrunner. The article referred to charges against Mr Zoef for holding a large quantity of weapons at his premises. However, it was Mr Zoef's son who was actually the one charged.
At first, Mr Zoef’s claim failed on the ground that he failed because he did not accept the newspaper’s offer of amends. Nationwide News were willing to publish an apology in the same newspaper, and pay Mr Zoef $20,000 plus his legal costs.
Under New South Wales defamation law, if an offer to make amends is made but not accepted, it can later be used in the defence provided the offer was reasonable (among other things). In this case, the judge found the publisher’s offer was reasonable for a range of reasons, including that Mr Zoef had tried to accept the offer after it expired.
Mr Zoef challenged this decision and took his case to the Court of Appeal. The Court found that the seriousness of the gunrunner allegations, and the damage caused to Mr Zoef’s business and reputation meant that the newspaper’s offer was not in fact reasonable. The original decision was overturned, and Mr Zoef was awarded $150,000 in damages.
WESTERN AUSTRALIA | Gruff, routinely insulting and blokey style identifies publisher
Douglas v McLernon [No. 4]  WASC 320
Mr Douglas, Mr Billis, and Mr Matich brought a defamation action against Mr McLernon and Mr Fitzgerald because of articles Mr McLernon published online. Mr Fitzgerald was included as they believed he was providing web hosting services to Mr McLernon.
The articles made accusations that Mr Douglas:
- Threatened innocent women and children through the internet
- Knowingly associated with a notoriously corrupt police officer, and
- Had been convicted of a series of criminal offences and was part of crime gang.
The articles also made similar allegations against Mr Billis and Mr Matich.
The court found in the plaintiffs’ favour and awarded Mr Douglas and Mr Billis $ 250,000 each, while Mr Matich was awarded $ 200,000. However, the action against Mr Fitzgerald failed, as they could not establish Mr Fitzgerald participated in the publications.
QUEENSLAND | Dennis Denuto comparison caused no harm
Smith v Lucht  QCA 267
Mr Smith, a Solicitor, was helping Mr Lucht’s former partner, whom Mr Smith was related to, in a child access dispute. Mr Lucht referred to Mr Smith as “Dennis Denuto” in written and verbal exchanges. Dennis Denuto is a fictional, incompetent lawyer in the movie The Castle. Although the exchanges were only seen and heard by Mr Smith’s relatives, he asserted that Mr Lucht defamed him
The trial judge found a reasonable reader or listener would understand the words “Dennis Denuto” to include the assertion that Mr Smith was incompetent and unprofessional.
Despite this, the case was ultimately unsuccessful. The judge found the comments were trivial and Mr Smith suffered no discernible harm to his reputation. The comments were made to a very small audience of family members, none of whom found the reference to be defamatory.
**VICTORIA | 'Professional' strip-club operator vindicated **
Hardie v Herald and Weekly Times Pty Ltd  VSCA 103
Ms Hardie sued the Herald Sun and a journalist for defamation after a newspaper, online articles and a radio segment discussed her ownership and management of a strip club in Shepparton, Victoria. She argued the defamatory assertions were:
- Her venue was attended by bikies
- She was a brothel madam (they constantly referred to her as Madam Black Mercedes), and
- Her venue was a place where police tipped off bikies to hinder police investigations.
At trial, she was awarded $90,000 for the defamatory comments about her venue being a place where police tipped off bikies. The other allegations were dismissed as non-defamatory, but Ms Hardie and The Herald Sun both appealed the decision.
The Appeal Court found in Ms Hardie’s favour and awarded her $ 250,000 in damages. The court said the police tip-off allegation and the ‘Madam Black Mercedes’ reference were both defamatory and damaging to her personal and professional reputation.
Written by Shine Lawyers. Last modified: October 16, 2019.