Defamation and the Art of Backfire

Truda Gray, Brian Martin

Abstract


Legal discussions of defamation commonly focus on defamation law, with relative neglect of struggles that take place over defamation matters. To understand defamation struggles, we introduce backfire theory: if something
is perceived as unjust and information about it is communicated to relevant
audiences, it has the potential to backfire against those held responsible. 
Defamation suits have the potential to backfire when they are seen as
oppressive or contrary to free speech. There are several types of actions by
plaintiffs that can inhibit this backfire effect, including cover-up, devaluation
of the defendant, reinterpretation and intimidation. To illustrate the value of
backfire analysis of defamation struggles, we examine four Australian
examples, involving author Avon Lovell, politician Robert Askin, solicitor
John Marsden and Aboriginal leader Geoff Clark, and the British example of
McDonald’s suit against two activists. Participants in these struggles see the
matters in terms of reputation and free speech; backfire analysis allows an
observer to put tactics used by participants in a coherent framework.


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DOI: https://doi.org/10.21153/dlr2006vol11no2art238

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