Libel, Reputation and Thin Air

This isn’t something I had planned to discuss any time soon, but recent headlines in Australia have pushed it to the head of the queue.

If you don’t follow Australian politics closely, you may have missed the recent news that seems to have obsessed the Canberra press pack. During a live interview with Julia Gillard last week on Fairfax-owned Perth radio station 6PR, shock jock Howard Sattler, concluding that irrelevancies such as the carbon and mining taxes, health and fiscal policy, border protection and overseas military commitments were of little or no interest to his audience, chose instead to spend his time with our nation’s Prime Minister grilling her about certain rumours concerning the sexual orientation of her partner, Tim Mathieson.


6PR’s management responded by sacking Sattler, a 28-year veteran of the station, and offering an unconditional apology to both Gillard and Mathieson. The only decent course of action.

But it does raise the whole issue of the Libertarian approach to libel law. Personally, I would prefer to steer clear of the whole subject of the private lives of the rich and famous; a good slice of the entire World Wide Web seems devoted to it, and I see no reason for LibertyGibbert to add to the whole sorry cacophony. Unfortunately, to even discuss developments in Australian politics over the last year is to be dragged down into that particular sewer. This is entirely due to the reckless misuse of public money by many federal and state politicians, right up to the holder of the highest office in parliament, as I’ve documented. There are countries where libel law is such that these allegations would never have seen the light of day.

Countries like Britain, for example. Two weeks ago, a veritable avalanche of speculation (in the Australian MSM, anyway) regarding two high-profile political identities was followed by a silence so deafening that several British correspondents have told me they were completely unaware of it. I suspect one of these may be the explanation for this.

And these are just the stories in circulation in the MSM. As a blogmeister and one with certain acquaintances in the political world, I am privy to all kinds of rumours that will never see the light of day on this channel… because they’re utterly irrelevant, whether they’re true or not. Then there are rumours, like this one, which are definitely of legitimate public interest and inevitably find their way into the public domain.

In fact, to even suggest that a rumour exists at all concerning one of the media’s darlings is to invite howls of opprobrium, as conservative journalist Piers Akerman discovered yesterday when he confirmed on the ABC’s Insiders program that he, too, had been aware for some years of the Mathieson rumours (but had obviously never mentioned them before in his column). I strongly suspect that, had the rumours concerned instead a conservative politician or his/her spouse or partner, the outraged howls would have been greatly muted, or absent entirely. I won’t speculate here on the reasons, though others have.

Where does Libertarianism stand on the issue of libel? For a definitive view, this excerpt from Murray N. Rothbard’s The Ethics of Liberty covers all the bases. Commencing with two pillars of Libertarian theory—property rights and the non-aggression principle—Rothbard fleshes out his position with eloquence, not to mention some counter-intuitive conclusions. He dismantles as muddle-headed, the notion held by some Libertarians that one’s reputation is in fact a form of property, invested with the same rights as one’s real property and chattels. Reputation, counters Rothbard, exists in the mind of others. As we are the owners of our own bodies and minds, he argues, we cannot claim property in what resides in the domain of others. So reputation is not covered by Libertarian property rights. Long before the advent of the internet, he wrote

For in that libertarian society since everyone would know that false stories are legal, there would be far more skepticism on the part of the reading or listening public, who would insist on far more proof and believe fewer derogatory stories than they do now.

Unafraid to follow his precepts to their logical conclusions, Rothbard goes further, finding there can be no ethical restriction on blackmail either, however repugnant we may personally view the practice. I suspect, though, that such an idealistic state of affairs will have to await a cultural change in which the public is indeed a whole lot more sceptical of everything it hears and reads, particularly from extremely dubious “authority figures”, than it currently manifestly is.

As the Gillard Labor government spirals daily into ever-more desperate throes of recrimination and self-immolation, casting itself in the rôle of the victim is starting to look like an increasingly appealing option. Expect more of this sort of thing to emerge in the coming days and weeks. And take it all with a grain of salt. Like the Rockwell portrait at the top, rumour-mongers tend to find that karma ends up biting them on the arse—sooner or later.

But enough of that, and on to more important matters: Kim Kardashian’s just had a baby!!! And is Tim Mathieson really the father? You heard it here first…

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8 Responses to Libel, Reputation and Thin Air

  1. Luton Ian says:

    But Oz, weren’t the same sort of rumors circulating a few years back about him and Anna-Nicole Smith? or was it Kim Kardashian who was rumored to be errr, connected to the late Anna-Nicole?

    I can’t fault Rothbard’s logic in any way, either on libel or blackmail.

    I’d far rather be given notice that it’s coming, and have the satisfaction of telling the little shit to go eff itself, than be caught by it unawares, with that rabbit in the headlights sort of bewilderment.

    I’d also rather have a media company in open disaggreement with both their own employee for his wasting an opportunity to do some real journalism, and with the high and mighty for not kow-towing and only asking approved of questions, than one which curries favour like the present example.

    Which sort of leads to the question of why some info sources which have all of the incentives not to be reliable sources of info – appear to have a self spread image that they are reliable, even almost infallibly reliable sources…

    But then, some people believe what politicians tell them as well.

  2. Kitler says:

    Actually the private lives of politicians are of concern to everyone, firstly it helps you determine who is fit for office by your own moral standards. So if they are preaching holier than thou laws and jail time yet are living in a personal Sodom and Gomorrah then maybe you have a right to know.
    Also you wish to know if they are thieves and how open to bribery or blackmail. The last thing you want are libel laws suppressing the fact your current leader of Obongostan or wherever is a psychopathic pedophile sado masochist murder but good around animals and overly fond of his niece.
    As for libel ask Oscar Wilde the perfect example of a man trying to use the libel laws to cover up his own private life, he forgot that if the accusation is true it’s not libel.

    Remember this story from last year? I couldn’t tell you about it earlier, due to a suppression order. Well, today, the charge sheet against him just got a whole lot longer.

    And yet it seems the slime will get off scot-free in the end, for the reasons I reported earlier. Let’s just say he’s not the only one in this sort of predicament – Oz 👿

  3. Kitler says:

    If Lizards significant other is a hairdresser then I think the question wasn’t worth asking, a bit redundant really. (allegedly).

  4. Kitler says:

    Ozboy the rot runs very deep within the ruling classes and I believe that Captain Sherlock was probably onto something with the exception of my favourite ladies from Quebec. At this point it’s going to take a clean sweep to get rid of the lot and start afresh with mandatory exclusion of sociopaths/narcissists from holding political or judicial offices. How we can get rid of them is problematic. So far I have underpants gnome model.
    1) Problem identitifed corrupt political system.
    2) Underpants.
    3) Political paradise.

    There are times when your dictatorship of Cthulu doesn’t seem such a bad option after all: at least in that scenario the Leviathan is finite – Oz

  5. izen says:

    Here is another libertarian on the subject.
    you can read the first chapter or check out the videos at the bottom of the page.

    I think it starts from the same premise as Rothbard about the practical impossibility of privacy but with a different slant…

    An interesting read, that.

    I share Brin’s view that “privacy” is not a natural or inherent right. It is basically a demand for everyone else to remain ignorant of our own affairs. Which we all pretty much were in the pre-information age, so it’s is easy to see how such a convenient status quo has been elevated to the status of a right.

    Not really possible any more. Or at least, possible only in a diminishing sphere of aspects of our personal lives. That isn’t so much the problem, as Brin correctly points out; it’s when the state has a monopoly on he means of surveillance that the potential for tyranny arises. If we all had access to those means, to “watch the watcher” so to speak, not too many people would have such a problem with it – Oz

  6. Ozboy says:

    Burnout barrister Charles Waterstreet weighs in, fairly predictably.

    Funny, though, he doesn’t link to any of the source material. He appears to want his readers to consume his interpretation of it as their only source. If you feel inclined, click on my own links to the source at the top and see whether you think Waterstreet was watching the same show the rest of us were.

  7. farmerbraun says:

    It seems that the proposed tort of privacy is, in Godzone , still “under development” through the common law process:-

  8. izen says:

    Well the privacy-secrecy-transparency arguement continues, the news seems focused on whether Snowden can escape to Ecuador, the issue of whether he, or the system of surveillance he exposed is the bigger threat to social order forgotten.
    It took a massive public backlash to get spurious privacy arguments thrown out and the people involved in supressing a critical report of their own actions revealed {CQC debacle}. Meanwhile the UK and other EU governments are attacking Google for doing much less than the governments consider that they HAVE to do secretly.

    We now have MUCH greater privacy than people living in tribal, Clan or village societies in the past. But it is technically possible to moniter every interaction people have online or when using phones. To believe that legal safeguards will stop this available information from NOT being exploited by financial and political interests that have the capability is naive.

    I expect government and business to collect all the information they can on what I do online. The best I can hope for is that they at least inform me when they take that information. As when you call a help line these days, the internet and phones should come with the initial warning. –
    ” please note that anything you say or do online or on the phone may be recorded by a State or business and used….”

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