When historians come to write the history of central Australia, the archive of the Alice Springs News will be uniquely invaluable. For the last 19 years it has been the most intelligent and fearless of the newspapers, one that goes after the news—political AND financial— in ways that its rivals, almost invariably owned by Rupert Murdoch, do not. It is also a paper with a special touch for the cultural life of the community in and around Alice. It is therefore lamentable that the paper has received a judicial heavy body blow.
I am in no position to challenge the details of the judgment except to say that paper’s professionalism has in the past impressed me, as has the quality of its motivation with regard to whatever it is reporting. If the paper was in the wrong, legally, I feel sure that one should also take into account its previous general demeanor and its tenacious regard for the public good. Those who know and like the paper will of course be able to put this moment in the necessary historical context. Those who do not, or those who feel they have their own reasons to even be pleased with the judgment, will probably be indulging resentments that have little to do with the public interest. We might want to say, for argument’s sake, that this was a case of fearless reporting that got carried away with itself and deserved punishment, but not punishment at the top of the range, which this seems to have been. What we can’t say is that the paper is one of those that has at last got what was coming to it. On the contrary, it has long deserved prizes for its achievements in journalism.
I should also add, in the interests of transparency, that I am a friend of the paper’s editors. Is also crucial to say that I became their friend very much out of admiration for what they have been doing in this wretched period of Central Australian history.
One last point. As things stand a poorly resourced paper, one that created itself out of grit and social conscience, is in massive debt to a flourishing real estate agent. What is the paper’s future? A deadly question created and left hanging from this case is this: would the Territory be better off if the likes of an Alice Springs News were owned by real estate agents?
Dr Barry Hill (pictured) is the award wining author of Broken Song – T G H Strehlow and Aboriginal Possession. His books The Rock: Travelling to Uluru and The Inland Sea (poems) also arose from a decade of work out of Central Australia.
The Supreme Court this morning decided in favour of David Forrest, a principal of Framptons First National Real Estate, who brought a defamation action against Alice Springs News Managing Editor, Erwin Chlanda, and the publishing company, Erwin Chlanda Pty Ltd.
The decision is in the sum of $100,000 plus interest. The issue of costs is yet to be decided.
The action arose from one article that was part of news coverage over a period of more than a year, of a situation affecting some 12 local families, home buyers, clients of the Framptons New Homes scheme and collapsed building company, Carey Builders Pty Ltd. The home buyers suffered significant financial losses and anguish.
This is not the end of the story but at this time I make the following statement:-
It is the first time in my half century working as a journalist that I have had to stand trial for defamation.
The arduous experience of conducting my defence without legal representation, and with a minimum of legal advice, is motivating me to do as much as I can to get behind the current push for reform of the way our society deals with defamation.
The present system is a great impediment to freedom of speech.
There is a vast gulf between what the law and the courts can demand, and what the readers expect from us, the journalists, and our duty to inform.
Rich people are vastly more likely to win than poor people. They can set on to journalists and publishers, lawyers receiving extraordinary levels of remuneration in a rigid court process that can result in the ruin of a medium and its staff.
With the recent Finkelstein Review, these issues are well and truly in the public arena nation-wide.
This case cost my wife and colleague Kieran Finnane, our family and myself not only the small amount of money we could afford for limited legal advice, but more than a year of sustained effort and anxiety.
We will be doing our best to assist reform efforts that will serve our readers, the people we write about and our profession.
The Alice Springs News Online will continue publication and maintain its five million word (and growing) online story archive dating back to 1997. (The hard copy archive dates back to 1994.) Erwin Chlanda, Editor
See also prominent author Barry Hill's comment on how the loss needs to be put in context.