Defamatory meanings and the hazards of relying on the ‘ordinary, reasonable person’ fiction

  • Joseph M Fernandez Curtin University (Western Australia)
Keywords: Asia-Pacific, Australia, convergence, defamation, defamatory imputation, defamatory meaning, defamation reform, digital media, freedom of speech, libel, media freedom, media law, media standards, self-regulation


Defamation law offers a remedy when the plaintiff’s reputation is harmed by something the defendant publishes. At the heart of the action lies the question—what do the words complained about actually mean? The process of determining defamatory meaning depends heavily on what the court finds to be the imputations conveyed by the matter concerned to ‘ordinary, reasonable people’. The process relies on assumption and conjecture, rather than on evidence. This article examines how this process applied in the Hockey v Fairfax Media case brought by Australia’s former Federal Treasurer Joe Hockey against Fairfax Media, which presented a paradox—the court described the journalists’ articles concerned in glowing terms but still found for the plaintiff.


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Author Biography

Joseph M Fernandez, Curtin University (Western Australia)

Associate Professor Fernandez teaches media law and is the author of Media Law in Australia: Principles, Pitfalls and Potentials 2014. He is the former chief editor of a Malaysian daily newspaper and has been a defendant in defamation actions. His research interests focus on the areas in which the law and journalism intersect. His PhD in defamation law proposed a loosening of the defence of truth for media defendants in defined circumstances. His other research interests include legal protection for journalists’ confidential sources and privacy. He is the head of Curtin University’s Journalism Department. He tweets from DrJM_Fernandez


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How to Cite
Fernandez, J. M. (2017). Defamatory meanings and the hazards of relying on the ‘ordinary, reasonable person’ fiction. Pacific Journalism Review : Te Koakoa, 23(1), 207-224.