Elena Petrova comments on "What to do when you've been defamed"

A response to Brian Martin's article "What to do when you've been defamed", commenting on responding to being defamed in the mass media.

Dear Brian,

Thank you for your article. I think it is very good.

The only suggestion I would make is to include something how normally the victims of defamation feel. They feel the whole world knows what happened and everybody is laughing at them.

The truth is, the vast majority of people have no idea who you are and will never recognize you on the TV or in the newspaper. It is only people who are close to you that will recognize you. Offer your version of the events to your acquaintances and give it without hype - or hate. Keep your calm no matter how hard it is.

If the accusation was on TV or radio, you can complain to the Australian Broadcasting Authority. You have to complain to the station first and only after being dissatisfied with the answer, you can complain to the Australian Broadcasting Authority. You must complain not about the defamation but about violation of the Broadcasting Code, which you have to study for this purpose beforehand.

My advice to the victims is to phone to the defaming media outlet immediately and express your disagreements with the publication/broadcast. If you hope to get a retraction, you must complain as soon as possible - some people even manage to catch a defamation in promotion and ring before it even happened, which will be of great help in your case.

Also send a fax and mail a copy of it. In the letter, only give the facts and say you are deeply emotionally hurt by the publication and you have had negative comments from your acquaintances (if you had).

Find out the name of the responsible person (executive producer or the editor) and address your letter personally to them; it is 10 times better than the regular "To whom it may concern".

In your letters, tell them exactly what response you expect from them. This is crucial. Usually you just want an apology that you can show to your acquaintances - remember, most people could care less about you; they are too concerned caring about themselves. Let the media outlet select the words and expressions for such apology.

To make the prospective of getting an apology realistic, you have to be nice. Don't just complain for the sake of complaining and don't tell them they are a bunch of crooks and you hope they rot in hell. Tell them you love their program or find their newspaper great, and this is why it is so upsetting for you to have your good name hurt by their publication.

Don't tell them they have to apologize or you will sue them - this will not get you anywhere. Even if you indeed have the money and nerve to sue them, don't threaten to sue them - just ask nicely first. What do you want - an apology or a boot? If you want an apology, keep this goal in mind and be nice.

Have your friends and acquaintances send similar letters of complaint too. I understand you are too ashamed to ask them but you will be surprised how many people will be happy to support you. The more letters the program receives, the better.

The media outlet has to respond to your complaint - or they will be punished by the Australian Broadcasting Authority; disregarding complaints is a violation of the Broadcasting Code.

Usually the media outlet will just say they did not mean to offend you and they are very surprised some people could interpret it this way; this is not what they meant. Don't get mad - just take it; it is good enough for your acquaintances and clients to clear your good name.

I hope this information will help victims of defamation to realize that what happened to them is not the end of the world and it happened to many other people before them, it is happening to someone now and it will certainly happen to someone in the future. It is not that media are that bad - it is that the reporters have to meet deadlines and they sometimes will miss checking some information or the researcher for the program did a sloppy job. The presenters usually just use the information their researchers compiled for them. They did not really mean to ruin your life - they just need to score ratings for their program to sell their ads, so they can get their salaries and bonuses. They do not hate you and if you are nice, they may even like you and give you your apology just because of that!

In regard to my case, we did sue the TV company and the company hosting their website for publishing the defamation because they refused to apologize. After 1.5 years and many thousands of dollars paid to lawyers, we had them to publicly apologize for their misdoing.

I also complained to the Australian Broadcasting Authority and they found Channel Nine guilty of two violations of the Broadcasting Code (I complained about 7 violations) in regard to our case.

I also published a website about our case: http://www.mediadefamation.org
I will be happy to publish stories of other victims of public defamation if they wish to fight back.

I want to be clear here: even though we did succeed through the legal channels, suing media is certainly not an option!

I did it and although I cannot say I regret having done that (it was a great learning experience), I sworn to myself I would never do it again. If something like this happens again, I will deal with it in the way I described above.

The problem that most victims of defamation face, they freeze from shame and they don't react immediately and don't ask for support from people they know. They certainly should be proactive to diminish the effect of defamation. Just as you describe in your article, one business owner did (publishing information on her website, distributing leaflets, etc). It should be done, but the media outlet should be approached too and although the victims cannot hope for on apology on air, they certainly can get a "we did not mean it" letter from the media outlet.

The fact that we got the apology published on the website of 60 Minutes had tremendous influence on our credibility; for us it was well worth it. But if we had acted like I advise from the very beginning, we could have had it 1.5 years earlier - and without spending all that money on lawyers!

Once you understand that media really did not mean to ruin your life, and you manage to approach them in the way that you appear to be the part of the solution, not a part of the problem, then your chances to get an apology from them soar. If you give them an easy way out, they will not mind to help you out too - as I said, they may even like the way you present yourself and they will probably also feel the accusations against you were ill-grounded. As long as the apology given to you does not destroy their credibility and ratings, they won't mind to help a nice person like you.

I hope my experience will help someone.


Elena Petrova
Elena's Models

October 2004

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