/ 09 September 2021

Publishing more than they thought…

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Australian news publishers can be held responsible for defamatory comments readers leave on their Facebook pages, the High Court ruled yesterday. It’s a landmark decision that experts say will change how media companies use social media and how social media users engage with news content online. And it all started with a former teenage prisoner who sued News Corp Australia and Nine Entertainment.

A hooded and shackled 17yo Dylan Voller was featured on ABC TV’s Four Corners in 2016 when the program looked into the mistreatment of children in detention in the Northern Territory. Following the broadcast, the Sydney Morning Herald (now owned by Nine), The Australian and Sky News (both with News Corp) posted links to stories they’d produced about the Four Corners revelations on their Facebook pages. Voller didn’t claim those stories were defamatory – he argued the media outlets were ‘publishers’ of the Facebook users’ comments he considered defamatory. The companies disagreed, but they lost in the NSW Supreme Court in 2019. They appealed to the High Court, which yesterday upheld the previous decision.

Quite a bit… Anyone – not just news publishers – with a public Facebook page and a desire to use it to communicate with their customers/audience should take note. As Sydney Uni defamation expert Professor David Rolph said yesterday, the decision “obviously has implications for ordinary users of social media platforms, because they can be held liable as publishers where they post material to their Facebook pages and encourage engagement”. The media companies involved in the case will change the way they use social media, they say. As for Dylan Voller – he will have his legal costs covered, but his defamation case has a long way to go… All the courts have done so far is clarify that Nine and News were the ‘publishers’ of the comments – whether the comments were defamatory is yet to be determined.

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