Rebel Wilson damages verdict will send shockwaves through celebrity gossip media

Celebrity journalism in Australia may never be the same following the extraordinary damages awarded to Rebel Wilson in her defamation case against Bauer Media.

Judge announces Rebel Wilson’s $4.56 million payout

Victorian Supreme Court Justice John Dixon announced the highest defamation payout in Australian legal history to Rebel Wilson on Wednesday.

Never again, surely, will a glossy mag or trashy website rush to publish the latest unsubstantiated damaging rumour, at least not if the subject of said rumour is a big earner.

In June, a jury of six found a series of articles published by Bauer’s Woman’s Day and Australian Women’s Weekly mastheads, both in print and online, carried the clear imputation that Rebel Wilson was a “serial liar”.

In his 136-page damages decision on Wednesday, judge John Dixon ruled that “only a very substantial sum … could convince the public that Ms Wilson is not a dishonest person and bestow vindication of her reputation in accordance with the jury’s verdict”. 

Justice Dixon also ruled that “Ms Wilson’s reputation as an actress of integrity was wrongly damaged in a manner that affected her marketability in a huge, worldwide marketplace”.

In other words, the eight articles published by Bauer’s mastheads had done such damage to her reputation in Hollywood that Wilson was, for 18 months from mid-2015 to late 2016, no longer able to secure the kind of work that would otherwise likely have flowed her way.

The implications of that for purveyors of celebrity gossip in this country are potentially massive. Publish scurrilous gossip and an artist can feasibly sue you for any decline in future earnings they contend was a result of said gossip being published. And the more widely read such gossip is, the higher the damages could be.

“It’s a lesson to all journalists that they must be accurate in their reporting, and if they unreasonably reflect on the reputation of someone they could pay the penalty in a big way,” said defamation law expert Peter Bartlett of Minter Ellison.

“It could well have a flow-on effect to media companies at a time when their profitability is falling. It doesn’t set a precedent, but you would imagine it would give encouragement to potential plaintiffs, and to lawyers who act for plaintiffs, to take action.”

Of course, there will be plenty of ordinary folk who think that’s no bad thing, and plenty of journalists who agree with them. Better standards can only help improve the standing of a profession that many rank just ahead of organised crime in terms of scrupulous behaviour.

To be sure, the reporting in the Bauer articles was shoddy, and Justice Dixon’s willingness to forgive was sorely tested by the failure of any senior figures from the company to testify.

Nor was he impressed by the company’s treatment of Wilson after publication.

Exact numbers are impossible to come by when calculating what work an actor might have landed, and how much they might have been paid for it. But Justice Dixon had a fair old stab.

Expert witnesses testified that on the back of Pitch Perfect 2, Wilson might have been expected to land up to four roles over the period in question, and to earn at least $US5 million for each.

Justice Dixon rounded that down to three roles, applied a discount of 80 per cent – to account for tax, agent fees and the opaque relationship between Wilson and her company (which contracts her services to film producers) – to arrive at a sum of $US3 million, or $3,917,472 at the applicable exchange rate.

If you accept that Wilson might now be in the $5 million-$6 million-a-picture bracket, it’s a conservative figure, though there’s no way Bauer will see it as such. Add the $650,000 figure for general damages (an award that is normally capped in Victoria at $389,500), and the likelihood that costs, which could be as high as $2 million, will likely be awarded against them, and you can see just how damaging this case is for the company.

The likes of will no doubt be convening emergency planning sessions to consider the implications of this judgement, but its impact could be felt outside the world of celebrity media, too.

That in no way suggests that Wilson did not deserve this particular award.

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