What on earth is going on with the Football Federation of Australia’s legal action against The Age?

The defamation action, apparently in the NSW Supreme Court, was announced by media release on Tuesday but at time of writing, no writ had been served on the newspaper, and no statement of claim had seen the light of day.

One Age insider described it as “bizarre.” Normally these days a defamation action is preceded by a letter of demand with a writ following shortly afterwards. No such thing was received in this case. The first anyone knew was the media release announcing the action.

The writ concerns the newspaper’s coverage of alleged shenanigans surrounding the bid to host the World Cup.

Officially, the newspaper still doesn’t know who the plaintiff is, whether it is the sole defendant or the Sydney Morning Herald is involved as well, and precisely what allegations are the subject of the action.

Yesterday afternoon I spoke to Rod Allen, the media officer for the FFA, who was happy to tell me that the sole plaintiff was the FFA, and not its chairman, Frank Lowy, as suggested in some media reports. The sole defendant “for now” was The Age.

And why had the writ not been served? Allen said that The Age’s lawyers had to “agree to be served.”

But I understand that The Age lawyers contacted the FFA on Wednesday morning and said they were prepared to accept service. After this, the writ could have been delivered at any time by email with the press of a button.

Allen assured me that the documents were all in order and lodged with the court, and “I saw the court stamp on them.” If they hadn’t been served yet they soon would be.

And why no preliminary letter of demand? Allen said that the FFA had provided a great deal of material to The Age in response to  reporters’ questions, but the material had not been fairly reported or used. On Monday, the newspaper sent the FFA another list of questions.

“We decided we had just had enough of it, we weren’t going to get a fair go, and we weren’t going to muck about, so enough is enough and we went to court.”

The allegations published by The Age that have caused the FFA most umbrage, he said, are those suggesting that two sets of books have been kept, and that taxpayers’ money has been used inappropriately.

The FFA had a reputation, and the CEO and Chairman – Frank Lowy – also had good reputations that had been damaged, he said.

But Allen denied Crikey’s previous report that Lowy had personally rung Fairfax board members and senior executives over the stories. Pressed, he acknowledged that “an FFA board member had rung a Fairfax board member” but said that this had not been Lowy. He said the discussion had been amicable.

Allen said that FIFA – the international football governing body – would be releasing a statement in the next few days clearing the FFA of the allegations, and an independent auditor’s report would also be released.

Would he release the statement of claim to Crikey? He refused. It would all come out soon enough, he said.

Meanwhile there is no sign of The Age backing down. There is another story based on internal documents today and on Wednesday editor Paul Ramadge has this to say on ABC 774:

“I’ll be guarded in my comments given that there is a press release about pending legal action…

The Age didn’t make claims about the FFA, The Age reported from documents and sources about the nature of the bid and it seems the nature of all bids that go into trying to win the world cup.

The FFA was given an opportunity to comment and indeed we ran an opinion article by Ben Buckley as well… So I’m not sure what the claim is…

[Have you seen the claim?] No I haven’t. [Have you seen the writ?] No. [Have you been served with a writ?] No. [So you’ve been served with a press release?] It would seem so.

The FFA recognised that they do use these lobbyists, The Age did report that they have questionable backgrounds, what you might call colourful characters, but beyond that that’s the extent of our reporting at the moment and it has had comments from the FFA as part of it.

[Do you stand by your story?] Very much so. The FFA was involved at every point in receiving questions from us and given the opportunity to respond and being published so I’m not aware of any complaint from them on a specific where something was wrong.

I’m yet to receive details.

[Why was the case launched in the NSW Supreme Court?] I can’t comment.

I’m unaware of in any way of having defamed Mr Lowie and I’m not sure of the tactics with NSW but at this stage that’s all I can say.”

Peter Fray

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