What to do when you've been defamed

Being the target of scurrilous gossip is no fun. Will suing for defamation help - or make things worse? Brian Martin explores options.

Published in The Whistle (Newsletter of Whistleblowers Australia), No. 45, February 2006, pp. 11-12

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Barry* was a victim of gossip at work. It went beyond the usual comment and speculation. His mates said Barry was on cocaine and abused his own children. The heavy workplace atmosphere was getting to him. What should he do?

Mary* moved to a small town and was befriended by Charlotte. Mary then found out that Charlotte was saying one thing to her, another to Mary's husband Fred and yet another to neighbours. The suspicions took their toll on Fred, who left town for a while. Charlotte offered to help Mary and Fred sort things out, at the same time telling others about hostility between the two of them. Mary didn't know where to turn.

Nearly everyone has been the subject of gossip, within families, neighbourhoods, workplaces, churches, you name it. Most gossip is harmless, and some social scientists think it plays a valuable role in binding groups together.

But sometimes it gets very nasty. Victims of malicious gossip feel under assault. It seems like the whole world is condemning or laughing at them. In the worst scenarios, damaging comments can lead to arrest, forced psychiatric treatment, removal of children, or suicide.

What should a gossip victim do? Ignore it? Confront the perpetrators? Threaten to sue for slander?

Sometimes the attacks are public. Abdul,* a shopkeeper, was accused of fraud in the newsletter of a local council. He went to a solicitor who said that it would cost ten to twenty thousand dollars to mount a legal case for defamation, with no guarantee of success.

Anyone contemplating launching a defamation suit had better have plenty of money and not be worried about losing a swag of it. As well as being expensive, suing for defamation is also slow and plagued with technicalities. Furthermore, it may not restore your reputation.

Prominent Sydney solicitor John Marsden discovered this to his regret. Channel 7 broadcast two programmes in 1995 and 1996 accusing him of being a paedophile. Marsden sued for defamation from a solid financial base and plenty of legal expertise. Although he eventually won in court, many years later, the process was a nightmare for Marsden. His reputation was further smeared through weeks of damaging testimony. He stated that "It's probably totally ruined my life and my health."

Aboriginal leader Geoff Clark, after being accused in 2001 in The Age of having raped four women in the 1970s and 1980s, decided not to sue. Similarly, when damaging rumours were spread about Mark Latham in mid 2004, he avoided the courts and instead made a public statement, asking only that his family not be targeted.

To get a handle on how best to respond to defamatory comments, it is useful to examine the dynamics of injustice in other arenas. In 1991, thousands of people joined a funeral procession to Santa Cruz cemetery in Dili, East Timor, then occupied by Indonesia. Troops, who had accompanied the march, suddenly opened fire without warning, killing hundreds of mourners.

Most atrocities do not generate much outrage, but this one did. The reason: western journalists were present and the massacre was captured on videotape. As a result, the massacre backfired on the Indonesian government.

Perpetrators commonly use five methods to prevent this sort of backfire: cover up the deed, denigrate the victim, reinterpret what happened, use official channels to give the appearance of justice, and intimidate opponents. All these methods were used in the Dili massacre: Indonesian officials tried to prevent images about the events getting out of the country; they denigrated the East Timorese; they produced false stories about responsibility for the events and about the number of people killed; they set up official inquiries that whitewashed the perpetrators; and they arrested, beat and killed East Timorese independence supporters.

These methods had worked in the past, but the video evidence escaped censorship and led to a huge increase in international support for the East Timorese independence struggle.

These same five methods of inhibiting outrage from injustice can be found in many other arenas, including censorship, unfair dismissal, torture, war and genocide. So what about being the target of false, malicious, defamatory comments? The key is to counter each of the five methods.

Cover-up, the first method, is standard practice in rumour mongering. The "sniper" verbally savages you to others but is friendly to your face, thereby reducing the risk of being called to account. Targets of slander should try to expose the perpetrators. Jocelynne* heard that a colleague was spreading rumours about her. She approached the colleague and, in a non-confrontational manner, explained what she'd heard. The colleague denied being responsible - but the rumours stopped.

The second method is denigration of the target. Of course, critical and demeaning comments can cause others to think less of a person - that's the essence of defamation. But beyond this, the person can be further devalued by how they respond, for example becoming angry and abusive or breaking down in despair. By appearing aggressive or pathetic, the target may seem to deserve the abuse.

To reduce the risk of further devaluation, targets should do everything possible to be and appear proper and above board. That means being polite and as level headed as possible, and especially not responding with counter-abuse. Good behaviour highlights the injustice of abusive attacks.

The third method is reinterpretation of the event. Perpetrators may say that they are telling the truth or just passing on what they heard. They will deny that their statements have any malicious intent. Sometimes they claim it's all just a joke.

Patricia* ran a small business. In a television broadcast, the business was inadvertently linked to shady practices. The television station refused to run a correction, so Patricia prepared a short and sober account titled "The truth about our business," complete with references to supporting documents. She posted it on the business's website and gave a leaflet to customers until memory of the broadcast had faded.

Often one of the most effective responses to defamatory comments is to ignore them or laugh them off. This sends the message that the issue is not important, encouraging others to lose interest.

Suing for defamation, or even just threatening to sue, is seldom a good idea, even ignoring the expense, effort, time and uncertain outcome of going to court. When you are a victim of unfair comments, you may receive sympathy, but when you sue you become the attacker. Defamation threats and suits are frequently used to suppress free speech.

Worst of all, defamation suits seldom restore reputations. In the worst scenarios, as experienced by John Marsden, they can further damage your reputation. Often they drive critical comment underground, making it harder to respond.

The fifth method of inhibiting outrage from injustice is intimidation. Defamers sometimes threaten targets that any attempt to respond will be met with reprisals, ranging from loss of friendship to dismissal, or even a defamation suit! The most effective response is to refuse to be intimidated and, if possible, to expose the threat.

In summary, when you are defamed, ignore it if possible and get on with your life. If the attacks are too damaging or persistent, try to expose the perpetrator. Present your own perspective in a calm, rational and factual fashion. Avoid courts like the plague. Don't be intimidated and try to behave as if you're not affected. Finally, behave honourably.

Jill* was attacked on an email list by an engineer. She contacted him and asked for a retraction. He refused and threatened to invoke professional ethics codes against her. Jill ignored this and sent a short, factual response to the email list. In reply, the engineer sent a vituperative email to the list, but Jill ignored it. She knew from comments she received that it was his credibility that had suffered.

* Names and details have been changed.

Elena Petrova comments on this article, with perceptive advice about responding to being defamed in the mass media.

Brian Martin is international director of Whistleblowers Australia and works at Wollongong University.