Ray Chesterton’s defamation action against 2UE has provided a badly needed opportunity for the NSW Supreme Court to apply some forensic rigour to the word “ankles”.
The hearing, set to wind up today, involves the famous sports writer and former columnist for The Daily Telegraph suing 2UE over a spray delivered on August 8, 2005 by broadcaster and “entertainer” John Laws.
According to the transcript Laws told his audience that Chesterton was a “bombastic, beer bellied buffoon … a creep … [with] an inferiority complex … [whose friends call him] Ankles”.
This attack was in response to Chesterton referring to Laws in his Telegraph column as a “70-year old disc jockey”.
2UE has narrowed its position to one defence — reply to an attack. Defences of statutory qualified privilege and comment have been shelved. Justice Lucy McCallum will have to consider whether Laws’ barrage was a disproportionate response to Chesterton’s “attack”.
To this end the court has devoted a generous amount of time on the pressing issue of whether the rugby league world did refer to Ray Chesterton as “Ankles”.
Initially there was was uncertainty on the part of the judge and counsel as to the meaning of word, as a nickname. Three definitions were proffered to her Honour: “lower than a cunt, three feet lower than a cunt and lower than a snake”.
Other definitions are in circulation, but it is uncertain whether they will be subject to judicial scrutiny, e.g: so far “up” someone that only the ankles are visible.
2UE has called a number of witnesses who have attested that Chesterton was indeed called “Ankles”. Denis Fitzgerald, the former CEO of the Parramatta Leagues Club, certainly called him that and admitted a a long standing “ill-feeling” towards the plaintiff.
He breezily told the court that he’d twice called Chesterton “Ankles” on radio and shouted out “How’s Ankles” at a media conference at Olympic Park in early 2009.
Clive Evatt for the plaintiff asked Fitzgerald for his understanding of the word Ankles, as a nickname.
According to the Gazette of Law & Journalism’s coverage of the proceedings the exchange went like this:
Fitzgerald: “As a nickname for Mr Chesterton? As a nickname for Mr Chesterton, it’s three foot lower that a cunt.”
Evatt: “So you called him a c-nt?”
Fitzgerald: “No I called him Ankles.”
Evatt: “Yes, but meaning cunt. Is that right? …
Evatt: And you called him that on public radio?”
Fitzgerald: “I called him ‘Ankles’ Chesterton on public radio.”
And so it went, on and on.
It’s been a long journey to get to this important point in the litigation. At one stage the case was in the High Court on the important issue of whether “business defamation” was a discreet area of tort law. Fortunately, that notion was throttled, but that hasn’t stopped Clive Evatt referring throughout the case to his client’s “business reputation”.
Chesterton and Laws had been friends and work colleagues, so the proceedings are set against the poignant sadness of a soured relationship. Chesto helpfully showed the court gifts that Laws and procured for him on overseas trips, including a silver key ring from Tiffany’s and a pen from the Vatican Museum Collection.
The plaintiff told the court that they were so “lovely” he’d never actually used them.