University of Sydney professor of law David Rolph said one change could be different forms of compensation, such as forced apologies or retractions, rather than a payout.
“I think we like to have a perception of ourselves as fairly laid back and rolling with the punches but when you look at the volume of threats of defamation … [compared to] the UK, Canada and New Zealand, they don’t have the level of defamation threats that we do,” he said.
Journalist David Marr, who writes for Guardian Australia, said the perception of Sydney as a “place to go to sue” for defomation was particularly concerning in a digital world with Australian law considering every download to be a publication.
“The most obvious reason Australia is in such difficulties is that we do not have a bill or charter of free speech,” Mr Marr said. “We are the only developed democracy in the world that does not have a national machinery for the fundamental protection of speech.”
Labor communications spokeswoman Michelle Rowland is also concerned about defamation, telling The Sydney Morning Herald/The Age that “by any objective measure … Australia has become the defamation capital”.
However, she did not commit to a bill of rights for freedom of speech, saying her “more immediate” focus was section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act. This section makes it unlawful to publicly do something likely to offend, insult, humiliate or intimidate on the basis of race.
ABC Life deputy editor Osman Faruqi, who sued Mark Latham after the politician accused him of anti-white racism and supporting terrorism, said media organisations were not always the victims.
“[Successfully suing] has left me in a very uncomfortable position where I can see the significant flaws of how defamation law works in Australia but I can also see that for some people it’s often the only recourse that they have,” Mr Faruqi said on the panel.
“If we’re going to change defamation law to lower the bar for what media organisations can publish please remember what these powerful organisations can do.”