The Australian and its Melbourne chief reporter, Chip Le Grand, are being sued for defamation over a series of stories published last December in which a former Office of Police Integrity manager was accused of bullying her staff.

In two writs lodged with the Supreme Court this February, a former manager of the intelligence unit of the OPI accuses The Australian of defaming her as part of a “public campaign to discredit and undermine the OPI” and with “reckless indifference as to the truth of the allegations”.

The former employee cites as evidence of a campaign, a string of articles published in 2010 and 2011 following this March 2011 letter from editor-in-chief Chris Mitchell to the OPI and its federal counterpart, the Australian Commission for Law Enforcement and Integrity.

In the letter, Mitchell notified the agencies of his intention to use “every journalistic and legal measure” to attack a report the agencies had authored that was critical of The Australian’s conduct in the long running Cameron Stewart-Simon Artz case .

The former manager is suing over articles written by Le Grand and published on December 10, 12 and 22, 2011 which accused her of repeatedly threatening, abusing and swearing at staff and falsifying claims of poor work performance against those who complained.

She resigned from the OPI in October last year and is claiming an unspecified amount of damages plus costs.

In documents lodged with the court in March, The Australian relies mainly on a defence of truth, saying it relied on statutory declarations from former OPI employees. The newspaper denies the allegation that the articles about the former employee were part of a campaign.

The controversy circulates around claim and counterclaim of bullying. Two of the former manager’s staff members made workers’ compensation claims for stress related injuries that were initially rejected by the insurer.

After the publication of The Australian’s initial articles, WorkSafe Victoria accepted liability in one case. In the meantime, the former staff member also put in a WorkCover claim for stress-related injuries relating to workplace mobbing and bullying. Her claim has been upheld.

The CPSU told Crikey this morning that the other claim was due to go to court. The union had no other comment.

Chip Le Grand told Crikey, “rather than part of any campaign to discredit the OPI, my story was an accurate report of allegations made against [the former manager] by two of her own staff, one former staff member and an experience human relations manager tried to resolve a serious problem within the OPI’s Intelligence Unit. The allegations were made in sworn statements for the purposes of a workers compensation claim and obtained by The Australian. Since publication of my story, one of the claims has been upheld. The other is still to be determined. [The employee] is no longer employed by the OPI.”

The former manager strongly denies that she bullied her staff, asserting that the allegations arose from staff who were disgruntled after she had tackled legitimate, and serious, performance management issues.

The case is next due before the court on May 29.

Peter Fray

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