Brian Burke, the law and how not to grovel

Charlie Gillis on how a 'small rumour' became big trouble

Chris Young/CP

Remember that lawsuit Brian Burke dropped on foolhardy commenters who helped spread the nasty rumour that he had an affair with a TV anchor and fathered her child? Okay.

Now, do you remember the doubly foolhardy blogger who admitted that he didn’t take down the offending material when asked, and didn’t see what “the big deal” was? Yeah, that guy. A journalism student, if you can feature it.

Well, here’s what happens when you start publishing rumours about people’s personal lives without first running “Canadian libel law” through Google:

I am new to the world of journalism and mistakes occur when people are new to something. Everyone is fallible, and I now understand that I made a mistake by posting a rumour online.

Hopefully, Brian Burke and Hazel Mae will read this and understand how I feel, and what my intentions were. I want to sincerely apologize to them for any personal or professional damages my actions may have caused them.

This part has “my dad hired a lawyer who told me to apologize, like, yesterday” written all over it. Grovel, scrape; scrape, grovel. And I’m thinking: good, Zack; be the babe in the woods. No malicious intent. Just a guy talking to a couple of friends on his blog. You’ll wiggle out of this and laugh about it someday.

Then, egad, I get to the part where he blames murky defamation law pertaining to the web. And dastardly journalists miscasting his quotes on the “big deal” thing. And how what he really meant was:

 ..that I didn’t understand why Mr. Burke was singling out 18 people for such a small rumour that wasn’t all that well-known prior to the lawsuit. I definitely understand the damages of a ruined reputation. (My class had Maher Arar come in this year and he explained how his reputation was damaged and never fully returned. It was a very scary, but enriching, story).

Quite apart from whether there’s a comparison to be drawn between Arar, who was renditioned in Syria; and Burke, who was renditioned to Anaheim, this kind of shading is a terrible idea. I won’t presume to school Zack on why. But I can report with confidence that “small rumour” made it to the ears of practically every sports journalist in the country, and quite a few outside it. NHL executives heard it. Guys on my beer-league hockey team—non-journalists—mentioned it in the dressing room. It travelled and travelled in circles that matter a lot to Burke and Hazel Mae. It was not well-publicized because mainstream media wouldn’t publish it until they could get some kind of corroboration or proof; if they saw it on their websites, they yanked it, post-haste.

So in Burke’s world, it was certainly well-known, thanks to that fission-like reaction only the web can produce. We’re all publishers now and, who’d a thunk it, the courts have figured that out.

That’s the part that isn’t murky.