Andrew Bolt and News Corp will be defending themselves against charges of defamation in Victoria’s Supreme Court today.

The case revolves around a matter lawyer and accountant David Barrow referred to the Press Council in 2012. The Australian wrote a story in November 2012 reporting that academic Robert Manne had told a book signing in Sydney that “newspapers should refrain from publishing the opinions of average Australians”. Herald Sun columnist Andrew Bolt quoted extensively from the Oz story on his blog. A few days later the Oz published a letter from Manne saying he’d never said as much, and that the claim was “something I do not even remotely believe”.

This letter wasn’t referred to on Bolt’s blog or more broadly in the Herald Sun. Barrow took a complaint Bolt’s article to the Press Council. As this complaint was mediated, Alan Armsden, then the managing editor of the Herald and Weekly Times (the Hun‘s parent company), wrote to the Press Council that “Bolt writes opinions, not news, and is under no obligation to refer to the subjects of his columns before publication,” according to documents tabled in court. Bolt responded to the complaint in a letter to the Press Council saying Barrow was a “vexatious litigant”. Barrow is now suing the Herald and Weekly Times and Bolt for this phrase, and other defamatory imputations he claims Bolt made.

Barrow, a recently graduated lawyer who is representing himself, has run an energetic campaign. On a blog he’s devoted to the matter, he’s posted copies of his correspondence with News Corp’s lawyers and detailed failed attempts to reach a settlement. As he put the finishing touches on his arguments last week, he spoke to Crikey to say he doubted a settlement was possible now.

“All the signs are that Bolt and News Corp are going to show up and run a nasty case,” he said. “Bolt and News Corp want a pound of something — and I think it’s my flesh … But I’ll take a sling at them.”

According to court documents published by Barrow on his blog, Barrow asserts that Bolt’s letter to the Press Council contained several “defamatory imputations”, which Barrow argues Bolt made despite knowing they were not true.

In its response tabled in court in May, News Corp rejects many of the imputations. It also argues a qualified privilege defence, saying that Bolt had a duty to respond to an attack on his character and conduct made to the Press Council. News Corp’s defence also argues that “Barrow was unlikely to sustain any harm”, as the response was sent only to Armsden and to the Press Council. News Corp also says it offered to make amends to Barrow in 2012.

On his blog, Barrow details the particulars of this offer. He claims News Corp offered to quietly settle the matter with him earlier this year provided he never made the apology the company provided to him public. Under the alleged settlement, he would be billed $160,000 (a mark-down version of News’ legal costs) but would only have to pay that if he broke the terms of the settlement, which included not talking about it or suing News Corp employees in the future. Barrow rejected this, describing the requirement that he surrender the right to sue News Corp employees in future as “too wide”.

“I don’t have any plans for further litigation — yet I also have no intention of throwing away all of my personal rights.  If News Corp will not accept that then let there be a trial,” he wrote. News Corp has said it will detail the settlement offered to Barrow in court.

A News Corp spokesperson said it was “inappropriate” to comment on matters before the court.

The matter will be heard in Melbourne’s Supreme Court over the next seven days.

Peter Fray

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