Jon Faine: Defamation and the Future of the ‘Media’

Posted on Apr 5, 2013

Jon Faine is a well-known, fairly ferocious radio-presenter on the Australian Broadcasting Corporation’s (ABC) 774 breakfast program. He sees his program as forming a part of the mechanism that holds those in power accountable for their actions. Faine holds a double degree in Law/Arts from Monash University. His career as a commercial solicitor ended rather prematurely when a frighteningly tedious insurance case found its way to his desk. Faine then ventured into pro-bono work for the public interest which involved working with The Age and the ABC. He managed to weasel his way into a more permanent role with the ABC in 1989. He’s been sacked three times since.

Jon Faine confesses to a room of curious-eyed law students his past and current legal battles and what to expect for the future of the media

Jon Faine confesses to a room of curious-eyed law students his past and current legal battles and what to expect for the future of the media

Faine admits he’s being sued for defamation by a well-known media pest

As Faine discusses issues of public interest on his breakfast program, it often leads to heated debates on the latest political issues and involves prominent public figures. He has been sued three times in his 17 year media career for defamation.

The most recent case involves a media pest, the ‘running joke in the Australian media’- Mr. John Casley, otherwise known as ‘John of Brighton’. He is the Secretary of the People Yes Party, former supporter of Pauline Hansen’s One Nation party. On July 2 2010, John of Brighton calls Faine’s talkback program. He gets through to air.

‘It’s John from Sandringham’

‘Have you moved?’ Faine cheekily asks.

Faine then proceeds to explain on air that Casley has been banned from his show due to racist remarks and Faine states that Casley is a racist

Three years later, the ABC receives a writ, forwarding that Casley’s reputation has been severely injured due to the presenter’s, a.k.a Faine’s wreckless and scornful remarks. The presenter falsely stated that Casley had been banned from ABC talk-back radio for being a racist.

This is an example of a defamation case which media players must regularly face and challenge. So what does each side have to prove? Casley must prove that he isn’t a racist and the ABC must prove that he is. This involves many man-hours from the ABC as they must extract evidence from years of archives. Faine is adamant of the existence of this evidence and recalls with much disdain of Casley’s frequent anti-immigration and anti-Semitic opinions that have made it to air.

The legal system is struggling to keep up in this digital era

And this is the way the legal system works. You have the right to sue someone for defamation and they need to find the resources to counter-claim. What are the risks? Faine asks. The costs, he answers – and Casley doesn’t seem to mind spending the money.

In this new digital era, the law is desperately trying to catch up. Faine argues that the ‘whole thing is a train wreck’ and we must put up with this imperfect legal system. 

In this new digital era, the law is desperately trying to catch up. Faine argues that the ‘whole thing is a train wreck’ and we must put up with this imperfect legal system. What about 20 years ahead? The law will still be lagging behind as it struggles to find its ground in the 24/7 news cycle and the newly born prevalence of privacy law. Faine contends that the digital evolution is an unprecedented change, much bigger than the evolution of the printing press that preceded it. The digital transformation we are experiencing is extraordinary.

The term ‘media’ has essentially become useless. Meaningless. Media has become an incredibly fragmented space. Radio is now being called ‘legacy media’ and Faine’s role as a radio presenter is no longer just that, but he’s now a ‘multi-platform communicator’ (a term that almost makes him puke). The media will expand to new horizons, new platforms that haven’t been invented yet. But the problem with our current engagements with media is that we are obsessed with method of deliveries.

Faine also criticises the marked change in political culture.

Why lawyers don’t make good politicians

‘Put your hands up if you’re inspired by the current crop of the nation’s leaders’, Faine orders.

The room remains still and he has said enough. Parliament, he goes on to say, is made up of two types of people ‘careerists’ and ‘lawyers’. The problem with lawyers as politicians is that in their profession they are taught to be risk-adverse. But politicians should take risks. This conflicting mode of operating has resulted in the lack of breadth in parliament. To add to this rather hostile environment, there is real enmity in parliament. Tensions between the Liberals and Nationals are rife. As well as the toxicity between the left and right in the Labor Party.

And in the pursuit for power, the Murdoch press comes out on top

It is not only the crop of leaders that are thin-skinned, Australia journalists are also culprits. The domination of the Murdoch press is frightening. The agenda-setting power of ‘The Australian’ newspaper (despite its small readership) is frankly, worrying. The Finklestein Inquiry came to surface with an air of artificiality. When journalists wish to hold public figures to account for their actions they are ruthless. But when the coin is flipped, journalists fail to stand up to their own testing. There is no minimum training for journalists. Journalists licenses do not exist. A framework for a code of practice for this profession is far from sturdy. Even Gina Rhinehart, mining magnate, is on the Board of Channel 10 and holds shares in Fairfax Media.

‘The abuse of power in Australia is little short of breathtaking’, Faine coolly remarks.

So what is the future of the ABC? Faine paints a picture of the ABC as the steadfast warriors against media giants such as Murdoch. He says that as long as the ABC continue to exists, Murdoch’s cable television mission won’t see the victory as it has in other parts of the world such as North America and Europe. As an employee of the ABC, Faine is guided by a code of moral principles, whether in private, it most certainly is publicly. His persona as Jon Faine, breakfast talk-back host, is symbolised by a pen which he wears around his neck. It’s his leash that guides him as an abiding citizen of the ABC. When he removes the pen from his neck, he’s done for the day and returns to being Jon Faine (full stop).

Jon Faine, breakfast talk-back host, finds solace in his boss’ words, Mark Scott, ‘…while the rest of the media go down the market looking for audiences, we must not follow’.

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