Guy Berger
Guy Berger

When tweets get up an editor’s nose, he shouldn’t become a twitter-troll

Possibly the world’s first Twitter defamation case is brewing, and ironically it’s an editor of The Australian newspaper who has threatened to sue over three tweets that troubled him.

He’s Chris Mitchell and he took offence when journalism lecturer Julie Posetti sent out micro-blog posts on Twitter as part of her coverage of statements made by a former reporter at The Australian, one Asa Wahlquist.

The live tweets reported Wahlquist as telling a conference of journalism teachers that Mitchell had prescribed what she should write on climate change and that he had followed “an eco-fascist line”.

An angry Mitchell denied the accuracy of this, and claimed it was defamatory. Then he said he would be suing the messenger — Posetti.

At first, it seemed strange that he was letting Wahlquist off the hook, but it seems he initially accepted her claims of innocence about the tweeted remarks.

In a letter to Posetti, Mitchell’s lawyer says that it had later become apparent that Wahlquist did indeed make “some” of the statements that were tweeted.

An audio recording of the exchange bears this out. Although Wahlquist’s speech is slightly unclear at one point, her remarks do criticise Mitchell.

The audio shows that what Posetti reported were generally verbatim clips of what she heard Wahlquist as saying.

However, although Mitchell’s unhappiness should really now be with Wahlquist, it is tweeter Posetti who continues to remain in his sights.

His lawyer’s letter does not explicitly drop the threat of suing Posetti, but it does propose that she (not Wahlquist) agrees to a rather grovelling apology. It also suggests a meeting and if needs be, a mediation with Wahlquist.

This apparent softening of position is a good thing, but the problem is that it continues to blame the messenger. Here’s why Mitchell should change his position:

1. His response shows that Twitter’s journalistic significance is being taken very seriously, and that is welcome recognition from a mainstream media leader. But the issue, though, is how to respond to his perceived problems in the three tweets.

2. It seems that Twitter is being regarded by Mitchell as being equivalent to a newspaper. But this real-time reporting medium needs to be understood as a rolling discourse of 140 characters. It is not about definitive and verified statements that appear just once a day and which ideally bear all sides of the story.

Like live radio, Twitter is always in process. It is about truths emerging over time in an open market of tweets, counter-tweets, conversations and links to extra content.

Twitter users know that the key to understand meaning in this particular medium is in the ongoing flow. They judge facts and claims as evolving, and in the context of a plurality of tweets.

In this particular case, Mitchell’s denials of the tweets at stake were indeed carried in the Twitterverse. And Posetti followers on Twitter, and indeed anyone following #twitdef, now certainly know that Wahlquist’s reported comments do not stand as uncontested truths or the last word on the subject.

3. In continuing to target the tweeter, Mitchell is missing another aspect about the character of the new media. If Wahlquist’s remarks at the conference had been live-streamed, as they could have been (and probably will be standard practice in the future), would he have then held the conference organisers or even the ISP liable?

The point is that suing any of the transmitting agencies, humans included, in regard to new media platforms seems like overkill. The logic is akin to holding paper companies, print distributors and newspaper vendors as being responsible for an article that is deemed offensive.

In tweeting Wahlquist’s remarks, Posetti only utilised a new media tool to do what the tech itself could have easily done.

4. In many jurisdictions, like the South African Bogoshi judgement, courts recognise that liability for defamatory material may be voided if it was reasonable at the time to publish. In Posetti’s case, it was utterly reasonable for her (and others) to believe that Wahlquist, in addressing a conference of journalism educators, would not have been anything less than truthful.

This, then, is not a case of malicious reporting or deliberately distortions, or of a Posetti vendetta against Mitchell. It was legitimate to do live tweeting, in this particular context, of what was said in a public forum convened precisely with the purpose of disseminating knowledge. Mitchell ought therefore to take the sincerity of Posetti’s reporting into account in deciding his response.

5. Worldwide, it’s a common principle that those in charge of mainstream media content should be sued, rather than sue. The rationale is that editors, of all people, will understand the imperfect nature of journalism, and that they will have a direct interest in correcting inaccuracies rather than forking out damages.

In this case, Mitchell should be very wary of feeding the defamation machine. Of course, he has the right to sue, like any other citizen. However, as an editor he should rise above criticism, and not help reinforce a climate of claims for damages.

6. In the Twitterverse, the best way to deal with perceived inaccuracies or defamation is to join the fray and seek corrections through dialogue. Not by threatening legal action, which could chill the free flow of information in this important channel.

This point is especially acute because editors like Mitchell are not only free to Twitter, but they can do so with all the credibility that comes with their status.

Furthermore, an editor is not a victim who lacks access to mainstream media. The editor of The Australian can also utilise his own pages to rebut any information concerning his reputation.

7. To an outsider, Mitchell seems strangely over-sensitive about the accusation that he prescribed a line of coverage. An editor’s role is surely to direct journalists. And the editorial independence of any reporter is subject to the judgement of that person appointed to take final responsibility for what is published.

If Mitchell had occasion to pull Wahlquist into line, that would only be defamatory of his professionalism if his actions were untoward in terms of journalistic standards and newspaper policy.

Where to from here, then? Mitchell should take closer account of the medium, the motive and his status as an editor. He should recognise that, at this point in time, his rebuttals have transformed the meaning of the Posetti tweets into question marks over Wahlquist’s reliability, rather than over his reputation.

So, let him leave things at that. The alternative would be to push forward with his call for an apology which is simply inappropriate to the nature of Twitter-reporting. His side of the story has been given, that’s what he should want.

I don’t think any editor would want to be known as a species of Twitter-troll.

*Disclosure: Julie Posetti is a friend of mine.