A jury has struck a blow for free speech by rejecting Rene Rivkin’s claim that he was defamed by the Sydney Morning Herald and the Fin Review in three separate articles in early 1998.
Australia has the toughest defamation laws of any English speaking country besides Singapore and we believe that over the years they have been used by the rich and powerful to suppress free speech in this country.
Working journalists are normally very pleased to see defamation actions fail and a big cheer went up in newsrooms across the country when Rene failed this time around.
We popped into the hearing last Friday in Sydney and sat right near Rene as Fairfax’s counsel made his submissions to the four woman jury on why the claim was “fanciful” and would require a “Harry Potter” imagination to reach the conclusions Rivkin’s powerhouse team were claiming.
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Rene was represented by Tom-Tom Wig-Wig, that’s Tom Hughes senior and Tom Hughes junior, both of whom were looking just splendid in their wigs.
When the three articles were published, the biggest concern was the strap line on page one that a late night sub added to the SMH piece. The box said “Death of a model”, and a sub later added “The Rivkin link”.
Given the fact that the SMH story was all about the different theories that Caroline Byrnes’ father had about his daughter being murdered, this was an unfortunate headline.
Rivkin’s people released a statement the next day that he had instructed his lawyer, Landerer and Co, to sue Fairfax over the SMH article.
According to one report, John Landerer was out of the country at the time. When he returned several weeks later, we hear that he advised Rivkin not to proceed with any legal action.
Crikey remembers coming across John Landerer at the last ever FAI AGM in 1998 where he was the chairman. CEO Rodney Adler had negotiated himself a nice little deal whereby HIH were giving him cash for his first 15 per cent and the rest of his stake was sold as part of the cash and shares offer that eventually helped send HIH broke. We tried to ask Rodney some questions that day, but John Landerer shepherded them away. HIH paid $300 million for FAI but it was probably worth about negative $200 million at the time if the accounts had been drawn up more accurately.
It will be interesting to hear what Graham Richardson says on radio about the Rivkin decision because he and Rene are very close and it was Richo who urged him to instead go and see Packer’s lawyer, Mark O’Brien at Gilbert & Tobin, when Landerer advised against proceeding.
Remember O’Brien, he is Trevor Sykes’s best mate and made the comment that “there could be a polo field or two in this little decision” after a jury found Four Corners had defamed Big Kerry earlier this year.
O’Brien also agreed to act for well known Sydney criminal lawyer and stockmarket investor Chris Murphy when he decided to sue The Daily Telegraph over one of my Mayneline columns back in 1998. The two are old rugby mates from school and the matter settled a few weeks back.
O’Brien may have been the connection that led Murphy to be one of the two witnesses Rivkin’s team had lined up to give evidence that if you read the three Fairfax articles together, they conveyed 17 different imputations, including that Rene was “criminally involved in the murder of Caroline Byrne” in that he “arranged it”, as Tom-Tom Wig-Wig told the court last Thursday.
Tom-Tom Wig-Wig also told the jury the ordinary reader “would say the murderers are Wood and Rivkin who had to kill of Wood’s model girlfriend Caroline Byrne because she was “a loose cannon” with knowledge not only of “their homosexual connection” but of their alleged involvement in “unsavoury business dealings”.
The other interpreter of the articles that Rivkin’s team had lined up was former Greiner government minister Michael Yabsley who Victorians might remember because Jeff Kennett verballed his Liberal fundraising techniques where his company, Corpol, would pocket 40 per cent of everything raised for the party at fundraisers he ran.
Crikey holds Fin Review journalist Neil Chenoweth in the highest of regard and reckons maybe Rivkin should have limited his attack to the Ben Hills piece in the SMH.
If he’d just focused on the Hills piece run on February 25, 1998, his attack could have pursued the line that it suggested he was responsible for the murder of Caroline Byrne.
Instead he went the scatter gun approach across three articles and 17 imputation and the jury through the lot out in just two hours.
When a jury takes a set against a plaintiff, sometimes the baby can be thrown out with the bathwater.
Anyway, we’d be happy to run the three articles concerned if anyone at Fairfax or with access to their libraries would email them through to [email protected] or [email protected] if you’re worried about being tracked.
Meanwhile, this is our list of high profile defamation battles that have been run over the years. Please send in any additions.
Crikey’s register of defamation battles
Tony Abbott: successfully sued over Bob Ellis’s Goodbye Jerusalem which suggested he and Peter Costello had slept with each other’s wives.
Sir Peter Abeles: Notorious for issuing various stopper writs against critics in the 1970s and 80s.
Piers Akerman: Rupert Murdoch’s best friend in Australia sued Fairfax over various articles during his disastrous stewardship of the Herald Sun in the early 90s. He has emailed to point out that nothing ever got to court.
Col Allan: The Daily Telegraph’s editor settled “to my satisfaction” a defamation case against Austereo’s Andrew Denton who suggested a crime story was only on the front page because the accused was Korean.
Chris Anderson: The Optus CEO and former journalist sued The Australian’s columnist Mark Westfield in the ACT Supreme Court in 1999. The Oz settled with a grovelling apology without telling Westfield.
Tony Bell: The CEO of 3AW’s parent Southern Cross Broadcasting is suing Derryn Hinch for comments on 3AK suggesting they have exercised too much power in the Melbourne talk radio market.
Joh Bjelke-Petersen: sued the ABC over allegations of corruption and rorts in his government. Sued Channel Nine and collected a $400,000 settlement which the dodgy entrepreneur said was to help him do business in Queensland. He also sued then opposition leader Tom Burns on numerous occasions and always used Ebsworths for his various other defo writs.
Neil Blewett: The former Labor Health Minister successfully sued when a magazine said he was gay. Years later he came out and now lives with his gay lover in the Blue Mountains. Will he pay back the money?
Peter Blunden: The Herald Sun editor took out a Supreme Court writ against ABC Radio’s Jon Faine in 1999 but it was quickly withdrawn.
Alan Bond: Successfully sued the Sydney Morning Herald in the 1980s, setting back investigative pieces on him for many years until Paul Barry and Four Corners came along.
George Buschman: John Singleton’s 2GB chief executive is suing sacked Drive Time presenter Mike Jeffreys for daring to criticise him publicly about a $530,000 unfair dismissal claim against the station.
Jim Byrnes: Alan Bond’s bankruptcy mate is currently suing the Sydney Morning Herald over a Kate Askew article column item in CBD.
Jim Cairns (Treasurer in the Whitlam government) and Junie Morosi (his personal secretary and assistant) sued The National Times over an article alleging they were each involved in an improper sexual relationship.
Arthur Calwell (leader of the ALP in the 1960s) sued The Sunday Review over an article that Calwell was really a traditional conservative conducting a rearguard action against progressive socialist policies favoured by Whitlam.
Richard Carlton: The head-kicking 60 Minutes Reporter is suing Media Watch over claims made last year that he pinched some footage.
Jim Carey: Sued PMP over an article in one of their Aussie trash sheets which settled with a big payout last year.
Nick Carson: This legal partner at Allen Allen & Hemsley collected $500,000 in a settlement plus $310,000 in costs after a long battle against SMH editorial writer John Slee. The court had ordered $1.3 million in damages for claims the article suggested Carson engaged in professional misconduct and a criminal conspiracy.
Rodney Cavalier: The Moree Champion paid out $150,000 to the former NSW Labor Minister in 1989 for suggesting he committed sexual offences on children.
Evonne Cawley/Goolagong sued The Bulletin over a letter to the editor.
Greg Chappell sued A Current Affair over threatening to repeat allegations in The Truth that he was having an affair and engaging in unusual sexual intercourse.
Anne Charleston and Ian Smith (who played Madge and Harold Bishop in Neighbours) sued The News of the World in the UK after it published a photo of a naked couple apparently engaged in sodomy, with the actors’ faces pasted onto it.
John Coates: A chap called Dempster criticised the Olympics supremo twice in 1983 to two separate people suggesting he was unfit to be an Olympic rowing official because he gave priority to personal interest and ambition. The first publication was worth $58,000 and the second $62,000, then Coates got $35,173 in interest on top.
Peter Collins: The NSW Liberal lightweight sued a southern NSW doctor for comments when he was Health Minister.
Laurie Connell: Dodgiest merchant banker in history. Issued about 300 defo writs against various journalists but all failed becaues he was a crook who went broke.
Peter Costello: Successfully sued over Bob Ellis’s Goodbye Jerusalem.
Tanya Costello: Successfully sued over Bob Ellis’s Goodbye Jerusalem.
John dela Bosca: Labor’s Special Minister of State in NSW received about $20,000 recently after suing that wild paedophilia conspiracist Franca Arena.
Frank de Stefano: the jailed former Geelong mayor who defrauded $8 million sued some critics of Barwon Water and won a $10,000 settlement for some bumper stickers.
Jason Donovon: Sued London’s The Face magazine for suggesting he was gay.
John Elliott: sued the ABC and former Victorian Labor Minister Steve Crabb over claims the NCA was investigating him shortly before the 1990 federal election.
Andrew Ettinghausen: The rugby league player sued Packer’s magazine HQ for imputing he’d deliberately permitted a photograph to be taken of his genitals. Was awarded $350,000 at first then reduced to $100,000 on appeal.
Syd Fischer: The yachtsman and Sydney hotel owner got $200,000 in 1987 against Fairfax for suggesting he was incompetent and dishonourable regarding aspects of the America’s Cup challenge.
Kel Glare: former Victorian Police Commissioner Kel Glare successfully sued Piers Akerman’s Herald Sun in the early 1990s.
John Gorton (former Prime Minister) sued the ABC over a This Day Tonight interview by Richard Carleton in which it was implied that Gorton had instructed Malcolm Fraser to issue a false denial of a story which he knew to be true.
Bill Gurry: The highly respected Melbourne investment banker sued former Victorian Treasurer Alan Stockdale when he incorrectly alleged Gurry was mates with John Cain and should not serve on the Tricontinental Royal Commission.
Joe Gutnick: Is currently suing the US Magazine Barons in the Victorian Supreme Court over an article suggesting he had links with convicted tax scheme merchant Nachum Goldberg.
Bob Hawke: Has sued most outlets over the years and received truckloads in payouts which built various pools, tennis courts and new wings in his homes.
Alan Jones: Very litigious over the years and currently running various actions against The Sydney Morning Herald.
Jeff Kennett: Issued dozens of writs including against The Age, The Australian and Packer’s Nine Network which yielded a $400,000 settlement.
David Lange: The former NZ prime Minister sued the ABC which led to a slight watering down of the political comment precedent established in Theophanous.
John Laws: the 2UE cash for commenter collected $210,000 from Fairfax from a jury in 1983 which agreed the article suggested that he fraudulently benefited from land deals.
Solomon Lew: Sued the Herald Sun over a front page article detailing an alleged inside job where someone broke into the so-called “Yannon room” at ASIC. Settled with nominal payout after a couple of years.
Clive Lloyd: The former West Indian captain collected $100,000 from The Age in 1984 after a stringer wrote a column under the headline “C’mon Dollar C’mon” suggesting World Series Cricket games were fixed. All his team mates lined up for big settlement after the jury decision was upheld by the Privy Council in London.
John Marsden: former head of the NSW Bar Association is suing Seven over a Witness report about alleged encounters with teenage boys.
Demi Moore and Bruce Willis sued New Idea over allegations of trouble in their relationship. The matter promptly settled with an apology.
Chris Murphy: The Sydney criminal lawyer turned stockmarket punter is suing The Daily Telegraph over a gossip column item carrying Stephen Mayne’s by-line that compared him with his namesake who owns 2SM and used to manage INXS.
Eddie Obeid: The NSW Labor Minister has sued various partners and critics for defamation and other things over the years.
Kerry Packer: Sued truckloads of people over the years and is currently running actions against Four Corners and Fairfax.
David Parker: The former NRMA director collected $135,000 from 2UE in 1983 when they suggested he was a disastrously unsuitable candidate for election to the board.
Charles Perkins: Successfully sued the Aboriginal Land Council for almost $1 million after they suggested he had tried to destroy them.
Steve Price: Suing Crikey and Stephen Mayne personally over a press release by Raymond Hoser that was read by less than 200 people and downloaded by 340 different people.
Brian Quinn: The disgraced former Coles Myer boss sued The Age over a Katherine Teh article that suggested he sold some shares shortly before announcing a big profit slump at the 1991 AGM. The slump was announced a few weeks earlier at the profit result so Quinn got a big payout that helped pay for his renovations.
Rene Rivkin: The colorful Sydney stockbroker failed in his action against The Sydney Morning Herald and the Fin Review over the death of the girlfriend of Rivkin’s former driver Gordon Woods. The case starts in April. Rivkin is also suing The Australian at the moment.
Roger Rogerson: The corrupt NSW detective got $30,000 out of Channel Nine after suing over the famous Sally-anne Huckstep interview on 60 Minutes when she accused him of murdering her drug dealing boyfriend Warren Lafranchi.
Ian Smith (former Victorian Minister for Finance) sued Cheryl Harris (a staffer who became pregnant to him) and Slater & Gordon over a wide range of allegations, including allegations by Harris that Smith had bashed her and tried to force her to have an abortion.
Marie Tehan: The former Victorian Health Minister sued The Age when the Kennett forces were trying to maximise the pressure on then editor Bruce Guthrie. The flurry of writs worked as Guthrie was soon sacked.
Andrew Theophanous: Sued the Herald Sun over a Bruce Ruxton which became the basis of the political comment defence when Murdoch won in the High Court.
Tom Uren, a senior member of the ALP in the 1960s and 1970s, sued the Sun-Herald over allegations he was duped into assisting Soviet spies in the early 1960s.
Ron Walker: Has sued various people over the years including the head of the Historic Buildings Council and journalists such as Julianne Davies on The Age.
The Waterhouse family (Bill, Robbie and Gai) have variously sued the ABC, 2GB and The Sunday Herald Sun.
Kathy Watt sued The Herald Sun and The Advertiser over allegations that she deliberately shafted Lucy Tyler-Sharman for a place in the 1996 Australian Olympics team.
Tony Webster: Owner of Webster Publishing is suing Stephen Mayne, David Ireland and Crikey Media over an article downloaded 178 times. Infosentials bought the business but has since gone broke with creditors likely to lose about $7 million.
Lloyd Williams: Another regular litigant who sued Melbourne University Architecture academic Miles Lewis, former Labor Minister David White, The Age and various other parties.
Neville Wran: Sued the ABC in the early 80s over allegations he attempted to interfere with the natural course of justice.