Tuesday, August 11, 2020

Defamation law is a threat to democracy. Let's get rid of it

Back in June, Newsroom published a well-investigated piece about how the Department of Conservation had waived rehabilitation requirements for a mining company. Now, one of the company's directors - specifically David Wong-Tung, who just happens to be Judith Collins' husband and the director of environmental pillagers Oravida - is threatening to sue them for defamation. The purpose of the threat is clearly to silence criticism of their cosy deal with DoC, making it a perfect example of a SLAPP. This is obviously outrageous, and Wong-Tung deserves all the reputational damage that comes from it being publicised. But its also worth asking: do we need defamation law anyway?

Officially defamation laws protect people's reputations from false and malicious allegations. That's fine in theory, but in practice it is notoriously expensive to enforce, meaning that the law really only protects the reputations of the rich. At the same time, it is clearly and regularly abused by those same rich and their corporate fronts to stifle criticism. It is clearly therefore a threat to our democratic conversation.

What would happen if we repealed it? Obviously, people could say untrue things about rich people and hurt their feelings. But they can always make themselves feel better by rolling in their vast piles of cash. On the flip side, they would no longer be able to intimidate journalists and politicians into silence, threatening them with vast costs if they dared step out of line and report on their dubious activities. Given the balance of harm, it seems to me that our democracy would be better for repeal.