Whither Rebel?

In the wake of Rebel Wilson receiving a record payout as a result of winning her defamation lawsuit against Bauer Media, where does humanity possibly go from here? It’s the size of the payout that’s news-worthy; anyone with eyes to see knew she was going to win the second it was announced it was a jury trial – good luck finding six people in this country who won’t side with a celebrity against a gossip magazine – and it seems the judge figured Wilson’s career was on a massive upswing after Pitch Perfect 2 so why not give her all the money?

Wilson has since made it perfectly clear that she’s not going to be keeping the cash, instead handing it out to various as yet unspecified groups:

It seems an extremely safe bet that the media – Bauer Media in particular – will be monitoring very closely whether Rebel “most definitely not a serial liar” Wilson follows through on her pledge.

But the most interesting thing here is this tweet:

Specifically the phrase “false articles”. Because the thing is – and we’re totally not legal experts, let’s get that straight, we’re just going on what we’ve read – it’s doesn’t seem to have been the case that Bauer Media were found guilty of making shit up.

In light of this general acceptance Wilson had somewhat rewritten her own history to benefit her career and created mystery around her Hollywood persona, some have argued it was Wilson’s captivating performance in the court room which won the day, rather than the debate about the facts themselves.

But Justice Dixon dismissed the publisher’s arguments revealing Wilson’s background and branding her as a liar was trivial, saying in the judgement: “At the height of the plaintiff’s career, an international career that she had worked to build over 17 years, Bauer Media launched a calculated, baseless and unjustifiable public attack on her reputation.

Rather, while many of their basic facts were true – Wilson altered her age, fabricated much of her history, claimed to be related to Walt Disney despite no concrete evidence for it, and so on – Bauer Media were still wrong to publish articles based on those facts.

In Victoria at least, things can be defamatory even if they’re true. If a major newspaper was to write a cover story on the time Rebel Wilson dropped out of Jenny Craig with the headline REBEL WILSON: STILL FAT, it seems a fairly safe bet that legal trouble would ensue even though it could be argued that the story was technically true.

So the case here wasn’t so much that Bauer Media lied about Wilson, though there does seem to be at least a few areas where some of their facts were sketchy. Rather, it’s that by publishing a version of the truth in the way that they did, they intentionally did damage to her reputation that caused her to lose money. The judge, who swallowed whole Wilson’s legal team’s word for how successful her career was going at the time, established the massive damages payout based on that.

(personally, we would have thought the massive TV flop that was her sitcom Super Fun Night might have damaged her Hollywood career somewhat more than some stories in Woman’s Day. Not to mention between Pitch Perfects 1 and 2 Wilson appeared in a grand total of two films: Pain & Gain and Night at the Museum: Secret of the Tomb, both of which were little more than cameos. If we’d been called to give evidence, we might have said that her career path at the time – two minor roles and a flop TV series over two years – might have suggested that her big pay day in Pitch Perfect 2 was more about the franchise paying big to get her back than the amount of money she could legitimately expect to attract to appear in movies without the words “Pitch Perfect” in the title)

The upshot of all this is, Wilson sued and won over a magazine writing stories about her that were, in a number of ways, technically true. Let’s let that sink in for a moment. You can write a story about Rebel Wilson that is factually correct, and if she thinks the tone of your story is defamatory she can sue you and – based on this result – take you to the cleaners for millions. The precedent has been set that because of Wilson’s line of work, it’s perfectly reasonable for her to “[rewrite] her own history to benefit her career and [create] mystery around her Hollywood persona”; if media organisations have facts that say otherwise, they’d better keep them to themselves.

Of course, many people are going to (rightly) argue that we all know the difference between a story that’s a hit-piece and a legitimate piece of journalism. But that’s not the point here. Wilson was, as previously stated, pretty much a lock to win this case because she’s a much-loved star and gossip magazines are scum; the big pay out is because the stories were supposedly timed to do maximum damage to her career.

But when then is the right time to point out that Wilson’s background is sketchy? If she was an up-and-coming actor or a struggling bit player, these stories could still conceivably prevent her from one day landing a potentially million-dollar role; if she’s ever made a big pay day but those days are behind her, well, actors make comebacks all the time. How are we to know another big paying role wasn’t just around the corner?

In the light of this, it seem fairly safe to suggest that coverage of Rebel Wilson in the Australian press in future will be… spotty. At best. Why risk reporting on her in any way when even the driest facts could be seen as an attack on her right to create mystery around herself? Why take the chance on conducting an interview with someone who’s been given a go-ahead by the courts to rewrite her own history? And what can you safely mention about her now anyway? Not her age, not her family history, and almost certainly not her past career as any mention of it in less than glowing terms could be seen by Wilson as “an attempt to take me down”.

As for us. we won’t be mentioning her again until she does something funny. It could be a long wait.

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