Alice Springs News defamation case needs to be put into context, says prominent author

COMMENT by BARRY HILL

 

When historians come to write the history of central Australia, the archive of the Alice Springs News will be uniquely invaluable. For the last 19 years it has been the most intelligent and fearless of the newspapers, one that goes after the news—political AND financial— in ways that its rivals, almost invariably owned by Rupert Murdoch, do not. It is also a paper with a special touch for the cultural life of the community in and around Alice. It is therefore lamentable that the paper has received a judicial heavy body blow.
I am in no position to challenge the details of the judgment except to say that paper’s professionalism has in the past impressed me, as has the quality of its motivation with regard to whatever it is reporting. If the paper was in the wrong, legally, I feel sure that one should also take into account its previous general demeanor and its tenacious regard for the public good. Those who know and like the paper will of course be able to put this moment in the necessary historical context. Those who do not, or those who feel they have their own reasons to even be pleased with the judgment, will probably be indulging resentments that have little to do with the public interest. We might want to say, for argument’s sake, that this was a case of fearless reporting that got carried away with itself and deserved punishment, but not punishment at the top of the range, which this seems to have been. What we can’t say is that the paper is one of those that has at last got what was coming to it. On the contrary, it has long deserved prizes for its achievements in journalism.
I should also add, in the interests of transparency, that I am a friend of the paper’s editors. Is also crucial to say that I became their friend very much out of admiration for what they have been doing in this wretched period of Central Australian history.
One last point. As things stand a poorly resourced paper, one that created itself out of grit and social conscience, is in massive debt to a flourishing real estate agent. What is the paper’s future? A deadly question created and left hanging from this case is this: would the Territory be better off if the likes of an Alice Springs News were owned by real estate agents?

Dr Barry Hill (pictured) is the award wining author of Broken Song – T G H Strehlow and Aboriginal Possession. His books The Rock: Travelling to Uluru and The Inland Sea (poems) also arose from a decade of work out of Central Australia.

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4 Comments (starting with the most recent)

NB: If you want to reply to a previous comment, start your comment with this notation: @n where n is the number of the comment you want to reply to.
  1. Francis Markham
    Posted March 13, 2012 at 3:00 pm

    I just heard the news about the defamation case. I’m most sorry to hear that the News has been dealt such a disproportionate punishment for such a minor offence. I truly hope the owners’ personal finances are firewalled from the effects of this case. It is indeed a sign of the times that the petty interests of real estate agents are allowed to triumph over the public interest.
    Though I do not always agree with the opinions published in its pages, I hold the Alice Springs News in the highest esteem and only hope that you will be able to continue publishing. The News has provided an invaluable public service to the town and region for the seven years that I have been reading, and indubitably for longer. May it continue to do so.

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  2. Jennifer Taylor
    Posted March 13, 2012 at 11:39 am

    I appreciate Barry Hill’s contextualising of the defamation case against the AS News. I cannot claim an in-depth understanding of the rights and wrongs of the case or any possible rationale for the judgement and penalty imposed. What I do see is that this is a very heavy and seemingly disproportionate burden for a newspaper whose staff have, in my view, worked consistently and altruistically for what they see as the public good. Intelligent, challenging investigative journalism will inevitably offend some of the people some of the time, but it fulfills a vital role in our community and should be treasured, not oppressed. If contentious statements or plain mistakes are made we might say with Voltaire: “I do not agree with what you have to say, but I’ll defend to the death your right to say it.”
    I would like to express my deep appreciation for the vital role played by Alice Springs News Online staff in contributing to community cohesion and identity. To think well about who we are and who we might become as a town we need to hear multiple stories and perspectives. We need to see the unique and complex cultural life of our town reflected accurately and compassionately. We must keep asking the thorny questions and challenging the truisms. AS News is doing this work passionately and well, and in my view deserves commendation and backing.

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  3. Edward James
    Posted March 13, 2012 at 8:10 am

    Small newspapers like the Alice Springs News, are a very important means of getting information into the public domain. I intend to send them some money. The defamation laws, used as a sword have so many oppressed people cowering in fear. Edward James.

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  4. Hal Duell
    Posted March 13, 2012 at 4:18 am

    When I first read about one year ago that the Alice Springs News was being sued, worry set in. I have no way of knowing if the fine of $100,000 is excessive or not, but with costs still to be decided, the total sounds like it could be a lot of money.
    If Erwin can’t appeal, then I hope he can, and I hope he will, pay. I say this because Alice Springs and Central Australia would not be better off if the Alice Springs News were to go out of business.
    Quite the contrary.
    Perhaps some among us need to drink that cup of cement and toughen up. Far, far too precious!

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