Friday, October 15, 2004

Defamation jackpots alive and well

The defamation industry has never looked more protracted, technical and therefore buoyant.

Well, that was last year – this year’s end-of-year verdict looks set to leave that then-bumper crop behind in the dust, if today’s damages award to Richard Sleeman is any guide. When the half-mill odd in damages is added to both sides’ legal costs, my guess is that the Oz will be up for over a million dollars. The full judgment is here.

Fact #1 (aka It’s nice work if you can get it)

Richard Sleeman is a gold-digging, serial (or at least two-time) specialist defamation plaintiff. His other, known mid-six-figure cash bonanza, involving strikingly similar allegations of petty opportunism, and extravagantly hurt feelings, as a sort-of journalist (Derryn Hinch's 2GB producer), has been noted at Crikey. Sleeman also appear to have mislead the court, with Derryn Hinch being noted in the judgment as "an old journalist friend from Melbourne" (para 119).

Fact #2 (aka Even manifestly shoddy journalism is consistent with a spotless reputation, it seems)

Richard Sleeman’s May 2000 article profiling Ian Thorpe did contain numerous mistruths (see also APPENDIX B of the judgment). While the offending piece, from Amanda Meade's Media Diary in The Australian in June 2000, may have, at a stretch, carried the (false) imputation that Sleeman had lied as to even having met and personally interviewed Thorpe, all other adverse imputations that could conceivably have been be drawn would have contained a fair element of truth.

Compounding this, “Sleeman [telling] reporters at the time [2002] the comment about Thorpe retiring was not a significant part of the profile” is itself a bald lie by Sleeman. The May 2000 article contains surprisingly few direct quotes from Thorpe, so making the line (which Thorpe denied saying, under oath) “I won’t be swimming after the Olympics” all the more noticeable. (Thorpe is not directly quoted in Sleeman’s article on any other topic, bar his swimming stroke and his good friend Michael Williams.)

Last but not least, Fact #3:

Sleeman is a smug boomer arsehole:

“[Sleeman] claimed his story was accurate and that he was reluctantly suing the newspaper that “gave me my start back in the mid-70s”*.

Update 16 October 2004

Here’s Sleeman’s third known defamation almost-payola – this one actually counts as a near-miss:

Recently the family of rising golf star Aaron Baddeley was devastated to learn that an article about him had appeared in 'Australian Penthouse' magazine. As committed Christians, the Baddeleys felt that Aaron's reputation had been seriously tarnished by the article being placed in such a publication. But does it really matter where a story is published, provided it's accurate? Do journalists have an ethical obligation to tell their subjects where the story will end up? Richard Sleeman is the freelance journalist who sold the article to 'Australian Penthouse'.

Fortunately for them, the Baddeley family’s presumed ethos of committed Christian forgiveness seems to have stopped them from publicly saying anything even mildly disparaging of Sleeman’s journalistic ethics. If they had, you can bet that Sleeman’s hair-trigger defamation jackpot response would have been immediately activated.

* Louise Milligan, “Thorpe steps into a law suit” The Australian 21 November 2002.

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