The publisher, editors and IA team ask readers and supporters to assist with regular contributor Alan Austin's dire legal emergency — and stand up for anti-discrimination at the same time.
FREELANCE JOURNALIST and regular IA columnist Alan Austin has been hit with defamation action after seeking to defend the Australian Human Rights Commission and its then head, Professor Gillian Triggs, against attacks in Australia’s media.
The saga began with an article in Independent Australia about section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act (RDA) and the Human Rights Commission published in August 2017. An IA reader, Calum Thwaites, criticised Alan’s analysis with his own article published in On Line Opinion. Mr Thwaites was one of the QUT students in the celebrated racial vilification case related to section 18C of the RDA which ended last year.
Alan then wrote a follow-up piece in September 2017, responding to the various points made by Mr Thwaites and offered this to On Line Opinion, for whom Alan has written 46 articles in recent years.
When On Line Opinion refused to publish Alan’s response to Mr Thwaites’ article, the editor of Independent Australia did so.
Although lawyers and journalists with defamation experience are confident Alan’s article is defensible, Mr Thwaites has commenced action in the Queensland District Court through prominent Brisbane Queen's Counsel, Anthony Morris.
Both Mr Morris and Mr Thwaites – who now works as Mr Morris’s law clerk – have been prominent players in campaigns spearheaded by The Australian newspaper to change section 18C of the RDA, criticise the Human Rights Commission and seek the removal of its (now former) president Gillian Triggs and other commissioners.
After settlement negotiations failed, the point came when Alan had to retain lawyers for court appearances. Documentation received from the plaintiff at that point amounted to 555 pages, including an affidavit by the student of 295 pages.
Mr Thwaites’ Statement of Claim now runs to 73 pages, with another 34 pages of schedules.
Court cases are usually expensive, particularly in defending defamation. The cost for a specialist lawyer just to review the documentation was $11,000.
Alan is out of pocket more than $60,000 already, with more costs to be incurred in the near future.
Defamation cases are often technical and many issues will be raised in Alan’s defence. However, it is significant that Alan’s article was not an unprovoked attack against Mr Thwaites’s assertions. The opposite is the case. It was a response to Mr Thwaites’s attack against Alan in On Line Opinion and is thus protected under the defamation law equivalent of self-defence.
It is also significant that Alan’s article sought to defend section 18C of the RDA and the Human Rights Commission. These are important areas of public concern, where reasonable discussion in good faith is also protected.
It is important also to note that Independent Australia’s publisher removed Alan’s article from the website as a gesture of goodwill and reconciliation. This was done as part of its settlement with the plaintiff precisely to avoid time-consuming and costly court action.
Alan has been a journalist for more than 40 years, having served with the ABC, World Vision Australia, the Uniting Church and many independent news outlets. He has won several prestigious awards in Australia and abroad. He currently writes regularly for Crikey and Independent Australia, and occasionally for other publications.
Alan has never had an adverse finding against him by any court, tribunal or professional body anywhere relating to factual inaccuracy or any breach of media codes of ethics. Not once. Not ever.
Why this is important
It is critical that this action against Alan is resisted. Not just to protect Alan’s reputation and savings. But to ensure other journalists and publications legitimately debating matters of public interest, such as our racial discrimination laws and performance of institutions such as the Human Rights Commission, are not deterred.
One irony is that much public criticism of s18C has been in the name of freedom of speech – potentially the freedom to use arguably racist speech – yet this legal action seeks to punish free speech used to respond to public criticism.
Go Fund Me campaign
You can support the crowdfunding for Alan’s legal defence by going to the GoFundMe website and chip in for the costs.
This fund will be audited by Melbourne lawyer/accountant Simon G. Mann.
Both Alan and the publisher will be happy to respond to questions in the discussion following this article. Naturally, the discussion will be carefully monitored to ensure nothing is published which may raise further legal issues.
Please send this article to others with a commitment to human rights and a free press, who may also be keen to assist.
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