On 24 November 2021, the Federal Court handed down its decision in the matter of Dutton v Bazzi, in which the former Minister for Home Affairs (and current Minister for Defence) sued an individual for defamation in relation to a tweet. The court found that Peter Dutton had been defamed and that Mr Bazzi’s defence of fair comment failed. It awarded Dutton $35,000 in compensation.
The alleged defamation
Ms Bazzi was an unemployed refugee activist who published a tweet on 25 February 2021. The tweet read ‘Peter Dutton is a rape apologist’ and contained a link to an article in the Guardian, which concerned Dutton’s claim that women in immigration detention use rape allegations to get to Australia for medical treatment.
Bazzi deleted the tweet upon being asked to do so by Dutton’s office.
Dutton argued that the comment imputed four meanings:
- That he condones rape;
- That he excuses rape;
- That he condones the rape of women;
- That he excuses the rape of women.
Dutton sought damages including aggravated damages and injunctions restraining him from further publishing the tweet or the imputations it conveyed.
Bazzi relied on the common law defence of fair comment.
What is defamation?
Defamation is the publication of material including statements and images to a third party about a person that tends to lower the person’s reputation. The defamatory meaning of a statement may lie in the literal meaning of the words or in the meaning that can be imputed to them.
In assessing whether a statement is defamatory, the context is important. The words are interpreted in the whole of the publication in which they are contained and the reader is taken to have read it all. The mode of publication is also relevant as it affects the way readers are likely to absorb the information and the amount of time they will spend reading it. The court must work out how a typical reader would interpret the message.
The evidence in Dutton v Bazzi
The court assessed the alleged defamation in this case in light of the surrounding circumstances at the time of its publication. The tweet coincided with the public reporting of rape by Britanny Higgins in Parliament House in 2019.
Peter Dutton made public comments about that case on 25 February 2021 including why he had decided not to inform the Prime Minister about the allegation but had later directed his staff to inform the prime minister’s office. Among other things, he stated that at the time he received the report from the AFP he was not aware of the ‘she said, he said details of the allegation’.
Submissions by the defence
Bazzi argued that his tweet would have been understood to convey that Peter Dutton ‘lacks empathy or sympathy towards those women on Nauru who reported that they had been raped’.
The court rejected this argument, finding that there was no reason for the word ‘apologist’ to have been read as having any other meaning than its literal meaning. The 280-character limit of a tweet was more than long enough for Bazzi to convey a more precise meaning if that was his intention.
The court found the ordinary reader would have interpreted the tweet to mean that Peter Dutton excuses rape. It rejected Dutton’s submission that it would also have been interpreted to mean he condones (ie tacitly approves of) rape.
The court found that Bazzi may have had a poor understanding of the word he was using and have intended to convey a different meaning. However, that was immaterial to the case.
Bazzi relied on the defence of honest opinion, contained in section 31 of the Defamation Act, which states:
(1) It is a defence to the publication of defamatory matter if the defendant proves that—
(a) the matter was an expression of opinion of the defendant rather than a statement of fact, and
(b) the opinion related to a matter of public interest, and
(c) the opinion is based on proper material.
The court found that the tweet was a statement of opinion and it did relate to a matter of public interest. However, it found that the statement could not be said to have been based on proper material. None of Peter Dutton’s actions or comments relating either to allegations of rape by detainees or in the Brittany Higgins matter led to the imputation that Dutton excuses rape. The fact that he made comments around the issue of rape, and alleged instances of rape, does not lead to the conclusion that he excuses the act itself.
Bazzi’s defence therefore failed.
The court awarded Peter Dutton $35,000 compensation in recognition of the offence and distress caused to him by the defamatory tweet. It declined to order injunctions as there was no evidence that the defamatory publication was likely to be repeated or that Bazzi would not respect the court’s judgment.
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