So much absurdity-protein, it is hard to make a case for defamation on a cheap shot

The Skinny • No. 64 – Allo, Allo: No Libel Suit For You

What are we skinning? Actress and activist Pia Zammit losing a libel case against the GWU-owned newspaper It-Torca, which had dredged up a photograph of her dressed in farcical Nazi costume backstage – which she was wearing as part of a performance of ‘Allo, ‘Allo! – in what was likely an attempt to undermine Zammit’s role within the Occupy Justice NGO – a hard critic of the Labour Party government on many key issues.

Why are we skinning it? Because the judgement appears to have struck both progressive and regressive notes in highly charged and interesting ways.

Progressive? Isn’t the Magistrate justifying It-Torca’s initial attack? Well, no. Libel suits generally have very specific targets and are built on specific consequences.

Didn’t It-Torca’s editorial stance imply that Zammit and the character she plays are one and the same, more or less? The thing is… no, not really. That’s a misconception, fuelled further by the well-meaning but otherwise slightly misinformed actor-colleagues of Zammit’s who took to social media to post photos of themselves in character and in costume during past performances, and deny that they are the particularly outre on-stage personas in question.

Regardless… the bottom line is that the photo was used to undermine Zammit’s role as an activist critical of government, by a newspaper known to be sympathetic to the Labour Party. Yes, that is hard to deny. But be that as it may, it is still hard to make a case for ‘defamation’ purely on those grounds. The paper took a cheap shot based on a backstage photo… it never explicitly made the correlation between ‘Pia Zammit’ and ‘Nazi sympathiser’.

But this is still a worrying precedent. It means that any ideologically-leaning newspaper or political party organ could pick on a performer to undermine any activism they undertake. ‘Precedent’ may not be entirely correct, since we’re talking about the manouverings of existing legal parameters here…

You see? You’re already making use of the kind of legal ju-jitsu that plays into the hands of power. But that’s what we’re dealing with here, and all activists should be prepared and empowered to fight their battles on these grounds too.

It IS something of a jungle out there. Yes, politically biased papers using their influence to play to the hands of an intellectually lazy and impressionable segment of their readership is not a good look.

So activists should have some legal recourse. But that’s where it gets thorny. Here you imply that you want more stringent libel laws… and libel laws were made less stringent precisely in an attempt to curb abuses of power.

Either way… another day, another fight against pig-headed partyjanissaries, as far as local activists are concerned. Living in a country where political tribalism comes as naturally as breathing does, indeed, sucks quite a bit at times, yes.

Do say: “While the optics of not awarding the libel suit in Zammit’s favour may initially look bad as the case in question is pumped with so much absurdity-protein from the start, the fact that it also signals a more stringent approach to libel action is actually an egalitarian measure. If anything, attention should be drawn to the toxic nature of party-sympathising media, and the way it enables and empowers cheap shots at activists and legitimate critics.”

Don’t say: “If I don’t assume that the characters actors play on stage are real, how am I supposed to enjoy the damn thing? Logic, innit?”

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