Tuesday, August 3, 2010

I’ll sue you

Followers of Australian politics will know that Alexander Downer has been quoted as alleging (which he has since denied) that when in Opposition, former PM Kevin Rudd would be given ammunition with which to destabilise his own party’s Foreign Affairs spokesman Laurie Brereton because he wanted the job. Downer is further quoted as saying (which he doesn’t deny):
I don't use the c-word, but I do use the f-word pretty freely, and I can tell you that Kevin Rudd is a f***ing awful person.
Rudd’s response has been to “refute” the allegation, i.e. to deny it, and to threaten to “take legal action for defamation”.

Ah, this takes me back. When I was at Metro – this was the late 80s, early 90s – in the days when there was a lot of writ-wrangling, we got a lot of calls from people threatening to take legal action for defamation. They were always put through to me, because then editor Warwick Roger wouldn’t take calls. I was deputy editor, and I would take calls. It was most instructive.

Basically, people rang because they were unhappy with something we had published, perhaps in the Ferret. I would talk calmly and politely to them and explain the law. They would demand an apology and a retraction in the next issue. I would say no, that there had been no libel, and would suggest that they talk to their solicitor who would give them exactly the same legal advice but would charge heaps for what I had just told them for free. We would never hear from them again.

The thing is, when we did get sued – and we did (you have no idea how much a libel writ for $1 million concentrates the mind, but I have because I received one) – we never got a threatening phone call in advance. We just got a writ.

In June 1993 I published the first issue of the magazine this blog is based on. A couple of days after publication date I received a phone call from someone mentioned on pages 14-16 in a story by Keith Stewart. She was unhappy and threatened to take legal action for defamation. I talked calmly and politely to her and explained the law. She demanded an apology and a retraction in the next issue. I said no, that there had been no libel, and suggested that she talk to her solicitor who would give her exactly the same legal advice but would charge heaps for what I had just told her for free. I never heard from her again.

So I will be very interested to see if Kevin Rudd follows through on his threat to sue. Doubt it. Sounds like bluster, buster.


Cactus Kate said...

No one who sues threatens to do so.

File the papers or shut the fuck up.

Stephen Stratford said...


The last job I had was at a publisher of trade magazines which were given away so all the income was from advertising, so the default setting was craven: if someone complained, the publisher gave in. Then they started a big expensive retail magazine. Every article was as bland as possible but even so one offended a crank, who threatened to sue.

I explained to the managing editor what the legal position was and that we should just tell this idiot to fuck off. (Not that I am an expert but I had had years of experience dealing with this stuff and these guys had none.)

They wouldn't listen to me and consulted their lawyer who told them exactly the same thing in more polite language - I saw the fax - and doubtless billed them several hundred dollars. I hope so.

Craig Ranapia said...

Speaking of Quote Unquote, didn't you do something about Andrew Field suing Bryan Boyd for defamation over a book review? Someone must have put their son through Eton off that waste of time...

Stephen Stratford said...

Craig, I do vaguely remember this but think it wasn't QUQ but the Listener. Field wrote a bad biography of Nabokov which I reviewed, saying something like "Don't read this, wait for Brian Boyd's biography" which I knew was in the works. Don't know (or have forgotten, more likely) about Field suing.

I do wish Brian would hurry up with his biography of Karl Popper, which he started work on about 15 years ago. I can date it as roughly precisely as that because I remember being behind the counter at Unity Books in Auckland then and offering to lend him my copy of Paul Feyerabend's autobiography. Brian looked at me strangely, and I realised that of course he had access to every book, every paper, every article ever published. D'oh.

Craig Ranapia said...

Oh, bugger I'm going to have to go to the library and do my own research. (Not that browsing through 'QUQ' is a great hardship.) I think it was Field suing Boyd over disobliging references to him in a review-essay which (to my great surprise) actually went to trial. My memory is a little fuzzy, but when you cross the rarefied yet clammy air of Nabokov fandom and the Byzantine ways of British libel law, I think I can be forgiven. :)

Stephen Stratford said...

Craig, I trust your memory more than mine. When/if you track this down I'd love to get the details.

Of course, we could just ask Brian but that would be cheating, somehow.

Anonymous said...


I need some help on similar kind of situation where the other party is threatening to take legal action.

Can you please help. I did not find your contact detail.

please contact me, I need your advice. r e a l t y o f s e o @gmail.com (remove space)

Stephen Stratford said...

Anonymous, I have replied to you at the address supplied but have had no response. I'm not hard to find via the NZ Society of Authors, or NZAMA.