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Two tweets, AU$80,000: Newspaper pays for defamation on Twitter

Typing 140 characters has come at a heavy price for an Australian newspaper after it was ordered to pay AU$80,000 for defaming one of the country's highest ranking politicians in two short tweets.

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Two little tweets have resulted in a hefty legal bill for an Australian newspaper, after a court found that the brief missives defamed a politician.

The Federal Court of Australia today awarded AU$80,000 in damages to Australian Federal Treasurer Joe Hockey in his long-running legal battle with one of the country's leading media outlets, Fairfax Media, over a headline reading "Treasurer for Sale."

While the story, published on May 5, 2014, related to allegations that a Sydney business group was providing "access" to the Treasurer for a price, the Court found that two tweets published on May 4 and May 5 in relation to the story were defamatory.

Fairfax newspaper The Age, circulated primarily in the state of Victoria, was ordered to hand over AU$80,000 ($61,400/£39,000) to Mr Hockey for the two tweets in question, or AU$40,000 per tweet.

The ruling is a watershed moment in Australian media law and in the country's treatment of social media -- unlike in the United States, Australia has no explicit constitutional provision for freedom of speech, regardless of the medium used. Similarly, Australia has no "public figure" protections such as those that have existed in the US since the landmark "New York Times v Sullivan" defamation case in the 1960s.

The two tweets appeared on The Age's Twitter account, the first with the short headline "Treasurer Hockey for sale" followed by a truncated hyperlink, the second with the headline "Treasurer for Sale: Joe Hockey offers privileged access" complete with a short summary of the story.

In his judgement, Justice Richard White found that "there would have been a large number of persons, perhaps in the tens of thousands, who read the bare tweets and who did not read further." He further noted that Mr Hockey "made good his claims of defamatory meaning" in each case and ordered Fairfax Media to pay AU$40,000 in damages for each tweet.

The ruling highlights the different legal protections afforded social media users in different countries.

According to David Rolph, associate professor of media law at University of Sydney, "Now in the United States public figures, like politicians, have very little chance of successfully suing for defamation. They would have to demonstrate that the matter was false and that the publisher was motivated by actual malice, both of which are very heavy forensic burdens to discharge."

However, such a burden of proof does not exist in Australian law.

Mr Hockey also won AU$120,000 in damages from Fairfax Media for news stand posters advertising the "Treasurer for Sale" headline for another masthead, The Sydney Morning Herald newspaper.

Fairfax has issued a statement on the ruling, saying its journalists "remain fearless in their pursuit of information that is in the public interest."

"The Court upheld Fairfax's defence of the articles and found them not to be defamatory. Mr Hockey's claims were only upheld in respect to the publication of the SMH [Sydney Morning Herald] poster and two tweets by The Age because they lacked the context of the full articles," a Fairfax spokesperson said.

"All of Mr Hockey's other claims were dismissed."

The judgment included "much of Mr Hockey's hurt and distress was said by him to result from publications which I have found were not defamatory".

Fairfax says it will give "full consideration" to the complete judgement before determining its position on an appeal, but maintains the articles in question "were found to be well researched and accurate."

Fairfax advises a hearing to determine costs will be held on July 9. The Office of the Federal Treasure and did not respond to requests for comment at the time of publication.

Updated at 5:35 p.m. AEST: Included comment from Fairfax Media.