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Hulk Hogan sex tape lawsuit: Gawker's editorial ethics on trial

St Petersburg, Florida:  As his videotaped deposition played for US jurors, former Gawker editor in chief Albert James "AJ" Daulerio was asked where he drew the line when it came to publishing celebrity sex tapes.

Under his watch, the New York-based website had posted online topless photographs of Kate Middleton, nude pictures of former NFL quarterback Brett Favre and a brief video showing wrestler Hulk Hogan having sex with his best friend's wife.

Hulk Hogan testifies in sex-tape trial

Gawker website crossed a line by posting a video of him having sex with a friend's wife, says former professional wrestler Hulk Hogan in a Florida courtroom.

Resisting the notion that all celebrity sex tapes are inherently newsworthy, Daulerio said he wouldn't publish a video of a child.

"Under what age?" asked an attorney for Hogan - real name Terry Bollea - who is suing Gawker and Daulerio for $US100million ($134 million).

Hulk Hogan in court in his trial against Gawker Media in St Petersburg, Florida.
Hulk Hogan in court in his trial against Gawker Media in St Petersburg, Florida.  Photo: AP

"Four," Daulerio said.

Attorney: "No four-year-old sex tapes, OK."

Whether he was being flippant or serious, Daulerio's response was a gift for Bollea's attorneys, who are seeking to convince a jury that the celebrity wrestler's privacy was violated by journalists who cared only about increasing their page views. On Wednesday, they put Gawker's editorial ethics on trial, relying on the website editors' own words to show how far they had strayed from industry standards established by print publications.

Calling those ethical guidelines "irrelevant, even damaging, in the internet era", Gawker founder and president Nick Denton said his site is "less sensitive to sensitivity than traditional newspapers".

Gawker Media's Nick Denton, left, and  AJ Daulerio, right, listens to testimony during Hulk Hogan's lawsuit trial.
Gawker Media's Nick Denton, left, and AJ Daulerio, right, listens to testimony during Hulk Hogan's lawsuit trial. Photo: AP

"I believe in total freedom and information transparency," he said. "I'm an extremist when it comes to that."

Denton, who is also named in the lawsuit, said he did not review the video of Bollea or Daulerio's commentary before they were posted online in 2012, but he had no regrets about their publication. Asked if he had ever considered that the video might embarrass Bollea, he replied: "My job is to disseminate information. It's up to others to determine the boundaries of accepted social journalistic and legal norms."

Wrestler Hulk Hogan, testifies in his case against the news website Gawker, which was funded by Peter Thiel.
Wrestler Hulk Hogan, testifies in his case against the news website Gawker, which was funded by Peter Thiel. Photo: AP

Attorneys for Bollea are hopeful a jury will reset that line, drawing it firmly outside of Gawker's actions and creating a new standard for freedom of speech in an age of viral videos and celebrity sex tapes.

On Wednesday, they called on an expert witness, University of Florida journalism professor Mike Foley, who spent nearly 30 years as a reporter, editor and executive at the St. Petersburg Times, now known as the Tampa Bay Times.

Foley testified that posting the sex tape online put Gawker well beyond the code of ethics accepted by most journalists. Reporters are duty-bound to avoid invading a subject's privacy unless it's necessary, he said, adding that they also have an obligation not to nauseate their readers with lurid details.

"You think: 'How will Mr. and Mrs. St. Petersburg react over breakfast?'?" he said. "You have to step back and ask is it necessary."

Gawker's attorneys maintain that Bollea essentially forfeited his right to privacy by talking about his sex life in graphic detail on almost every radio or TV show that would have him. Posting the video was as justifiable as publishing a written commentary on his performance, they say, particularly because at least one other website had already posted still photographs taken from the video.

Happenstance put the Bollea sex tape into Daulerio's hands.

In his deposition, he said that he received an anonymous email from someone claiming to have a client who had information pertaining to the rumoured Hulk Hogan sex tape. The sender didn't ask for money, and Daulerio didn't ask for details. He passed along his address and, soon enough, Gawker was in possession of a roughly 30-minute sex tape that its staff edited down to one minute, 41 seconds.

Bollea's attorneys say roughly 7 million people visited the page, at least 2.5 million of whom viewed the video.

Asked if he would have made the same decision to post the video, knowing that Bollea was filmed without his consent, Daulerio said he would.

"I thought it was newsworthy," he said.

Tampa Bay Times via The New York Times