It's difficult to put a price on a reputation. It’s a reference check on our character; it follows us throughout our lives and for many who rely on it to make a living, reputation can be “everything”.
Warren Buffett famously wrote: “It takes 20 years to build a reputation and five minutes to ruin it. If you think about that, you'll do things differently”.
Professionals such as doctors and those in the public eye such as musicians and sports people, spend a lifetime shaping their image and creating a brand; it becomes an important, yet fragile asset.
Let's face it, if you work in an industry that places you in the public eye, and you are 'the product,' criticism comes with the territory. However, it is not an open license for others to lay waste to your reputation. The difficulty lies in knowing whether the line has been crossed.
Defamation is a term that is so widely misapplied in popular culture that it suffers from an identity crisis. It involves a strict test of liability, with parties succeeding in only the clearest of cases. Sometimes the right apology and retraction is enough to fix the harm inflicted; in rarer cases, court ordered damages may be the answer. If you feel your reputation has suffered from defamatory matter, then consider the following:
What is defamation?
It occurs when defamatory material relating to an individual is published. Defamatory material is that which could expose an individual to hatred, contempt or ridicule; cause people to shun or avoid an individual; or lower the public’s estimation of that individual. The law assumes that everyone is of good character, until proved otherwise.
What the Courts consider defamatory is a matter of context. For example, you may say I am a thoroughly decent person, but that I am showing signs of age; my eyesight is poor, and that my hands tremble. That is not a reflection on my character and is more likely to evoke sympathy rather than hatred, ridicule or contempt. But consider if I were a surgeon. To make these same comments would imply that I am a decent person but a dangerously incompetent surgeon, which is clearly likely to injure my professional reputation.*
In making a claim for defamation you do not have to prove financial loss, you do not have to show that the statement was false and you do not have to show that the person making the comment was motivated by malice.
Who can take legal action?
The following groups are eligible to bring an action in defamation:
What do I need to demonstrate?
Is taking legal action worthwhile?
Before commencing legal action you should be aware that there are certain instances where, otherwise defamatory matter attracts a defence in law.
Defamation claims can fail in whole or in part if:
Claims for defamation are often time consuming and expensive, and should not be commenced without careful consideration of the facts and expert legal advice.
Given the time it takes for litigation to run its course, the action is decided long after the publication was made (and in some cases forgotten.)
Sometimes the most appropriate remedy is the correct type of apology (which a court cannot order). You should keep this in mind, and whether the satisfaction of “winning the case” or receiving financial compensation will cure the damage caused.
Take this for what it is: a straight forward, easy to read summary of an extremely technical and specialised area of law. Do not use this as the basis to launch into claim against a multi-national media outlet (or your neighbour who posted a photo of your wheelie bin out the front of your house on a non-collection day).
* John Fairfax Publications Pty Ltd v Gacic  HCA 28, Gleeson CJ and Crennan J explain this concept.