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.