20 December 2019

In this issue of zoom-in brief, it’s all about defamation as Warner Bros. fire back at Richard Jewell movie defamation claims; Elon Musk wins defamation lawsuit against British cave expert over ‘pedo guy’ Tweet; and a wealthy Queensland family in Australia has been awarded $3.6m in damages over a Nine Network report about the fatal Grantham floods in 2011.

Editorial credit: Tinseltown
Editorial credit: Tinseltown
Clint Eastwood


Atlanta’s leading newspaper, Atlanta Journal-Constitution (AJC) is gearing up to take on Clint Eastwood’s latest film, Richard Jewell, in an argument about the on-screen portrayal of one of its legendary reporters.

The paper says the depiction in the movie of the now-deceased reporter Kathy Scruggs, played by Olivia Wilde, is “offensive” and “highly defamatory”.

Richard Jewell depicts Scruggs as sleeping with an FBI agent in return for information from a source in the aftermath of the 1996 Olympic Bombing in Atlanta.

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution has repeatedly denounced the movie’s treatment of the veteran reporter, who broke the news that the FBI was focusing on Jewell in the investigation.

“Such a portrayal makes it appear that the AJC sexually exploited its staff and/or that it facilitated or condoned offering sexual gratification to sources in exchange for stories. That is entirely false and malicious, and it is extremely defamatory and damaging,” says the letter sent on behalf of the paper, to Eastwood, screenwriter Billy Ray and Warner Brothers executives.

‘It’s not how the AJC operates’, said Kevin Riley, the paper’s editor, after Warner Bros. dismissed the paper’s claims as “baseless”.

Warner Brothers said in a statement that there is “no disputing that Richard Jewell was an innocent man whose reputation and life were shredded by a miscarriage of justice. It is unfortunate and the ultimate irony that The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, having been a part of the rush to judgment of Richard Jewell, is now trying to malign our filmmakers and cast. Richard Jewell focuses on the real victim, seeks to tell his story, confirm his innocence and restore his name.”

“The disclaimer at the end of the film is: ‘The film is based on actual historical events. Dialogue and certain events and characters contained in the film were created for the purposes of dramatization,” the studio added.


The US tech billionaire Elon Musk has been found not liable for defamation after being sued by a British cave expert he had called a “pedo guy” on Twitter.

A Los Angeles jury found in favour of Mr Musk after a four-day trial in which Vernon Unsworth, who had taken part in the rescue of a group of children in Thailand last year, had sought damages of up to $190 million (£145 million) for libel.

The two had clashed after Mr Unsworth, 64, insulted Mr Musk’s proposals for a mini submarine to rescue the children from the flooded caves. Mr Musk, 48, had responded by referring to Mr Unsworth as a “pedo guy”.

A jury took less than an hour to consider the verdict. Judge Stephen Wilson read out the verdict, delivered by the jury foreman, saying: “We find in favour of the defendant.”

Speaking outside court after the decision, Mr Musk said: “My faith in humanity has been restored.”

Asked if it had been an easy decision, the jury foreman said: “Took us like 20 minutes.”

The court earlier heard that Mr Musk’s comments about Mr Unsworth had “dropped a nuclear bomb” on the caver, who received an MBE earlier this year for his role in the rescue that received international attention last year.

Mr Unsworth had claimed the tweet had left him feeling “dirtied” and “humiliated”.

“I took it to mean I was a paedophile,” he said on Wednesday. “It feels very raw. I feel humiliated, shamed, dirtied.”

Mr Musk had claimed the tweet was not to be taken literally, and was meant as an insult, rather than an allegation.

Outside court Mr Unsworth said he would “take it on the chin.” “I’ve just got to go back and try and rebuild my life,” he said.

In order to succeed in a defamation claim both in the US and here in the UK, the words sued over must be judged by the court to be defamatory i.e. they must cause harm to the claimant’s reputation – in the UK the words must have caused or be likely to cause ‘serious harm’ to reputation to be actionable in law  The courts draw a distinction between defamatory words which would negatively affect reputation in the eyes of third parties and mere abuse which does not.  Unfortunately for Mr Unsworth, the jury decided in this case that the words would not negatively affect his reputation.


Toowoomba’s Wagner brothers were defamed by a 60 Minutes report broadcast on the Australian Nine Network in May 2015 that incorrectly insinuated they were responsible for the destruction of the town and deaths of 12 people, a Brisbane supreme court jury found.

Nine and journalist Nicholas Cater were ordered to pay each of the four brothers $900,000 plus interest.

Denis, John, Neill and Joe Wagner said the report insinuated the collapse of a wall of a Lockyer Valley quarry they owned caused the “man-made catastrophe”.

The report, entitled “The Missing Hour”, described the wall of water that fatally swept through Grantham as an “inland tsunami”.

The report does not expressly blame them for the deaths but the family believes it led people to believe they caused the disaster, sought to cover it up and refused to answer to the public.

The judge was scathing of the network’s “unjustifiable” conduct, saying it was recklessly indifferent with the truth.

“The Nine Network had information that contradicted the allegations contained in the programme but did not broadcast it,” he said.

He said Cater’s conclusions were expressed as a result of extensive investigative journalism supported by eyewitnesses but he “did not contact any of the Wagners about the allegations he made about their quarry”.

The judge said Cater’s and Nine’s careless actions were exacerbated by their failure to retract or apologise once it became clear their report was flawed.

“60 Minutes and Mr Cater’s respective defamations caused substantial injury to the Wagners’ reputations for integrity … and great harm to them personally,” he said.

The judge said the accusation the Wagners failed to take steps to prevent the quarry wall collapsing, which led to the deaths and town’s destruction, was an “extraordinarily serious defamation.”

“The programme included vision of the devastation of Grantham and the trauma of flood victims, including the inconsolable grief of a mother whose infant was taken from her arms in the flood,” he said.

Outside court, Denis Wagner said the family was pleased the truth had come out.

Nine and Cater were ordered to pay each of the four brothers $600,000 and $300,00 respectively.

Nine said it would review the judgment and consider its position. Cater declined to comment.

This decision acts as a reminder to journalists who make investigative programmes to ensure that facts are portrayed in a fair and accurate way and those accused of wrongdoing are offered a right of reply.

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