Lawyer and accountant David Barrow has lost his defamation case against News Corp columnist Andrew Bolt, and yesterday the Victorian Supreme Court ordered Barrow to pay $500,000 to News Corp to cover the media company’s costs.

The bill was discounted from the $825,000 News Corp says it spent defending the case. Nonetheless, Barrow told Crikey he would have to declare bankruptcy. Speaking shortly after the judgement, Barrow said he felt he had “won the moral battle standing up to News Corp bullies”.

Barrow sued Bolt in 2012 for a letter the columnist wrote to his boss and the Press Council, urging them to dismiss a complaint by Barrow because he was, as Bolt described him, a “vexatious litigant”. Barrow claimed this was a defamatory imputation and took Bolt to court over it. Barrow’s original complaint related to a Bolt opinion piece that relied on a report in The Australian regarding the academic and author Robert Manne. The Oz story was later corrected, but no such correction was made in Bolt’s post quoting from it.

In its defence, News Corp subsidiary the Herald and Weekly Times (which employs Bolt) did not argue against most of the defamatory imputations made in the letter about Barrow. But the publisher did argue Bolt made the comment under “qualified privilege” — that is, he made the comment in the course of undertaking his duty to respond to the Press Council about the complaint. Barrow argued that given Bolt had made the comment “with malice”, the qualified privilege defence should not apply, but Justice Terry Forrest dismissed this.

In yesterday’s judgement, Forrest said the defamatory imputations in Bolt’s letter to his boss, forwarded to the Press Council, were “trivial” and “obviously made under qualified privilege”. Referring to an email Barrow sent to Bolt claiming he would unleash an “innovative storm-wave of defamation claims” against the columnist, Forrest said the first salvo “has failed conspicuously”.

Throughout the proceedings, Barrow has been maintaining a blog with blow-by-blow accounts of his dealings with News Corp and his experiences in court. This might have hurt his case, as Forrest noted the greatest dispersion of defamatory material had been made by Barrow himself, when he published a copy of Bolt’s letter about him on the blog.

Barrow continued to keep supporters updated yesterday. Before the trial, News Corp had offered Barrow a way to avoid court, offering to settle with him provided he paid the company $160,000 to cover its costs, which would be waived for as long as Barrow agreed not to sue any of News Corp’s employees in the future. After yesterday’s verdict, Barrow wrote that yesterday’s outcome was preferable to that settlement offer:

“In rejecting the ridiculous News Corp pre-trial settlement offer I refused to carry a potential $160,000 fine over my head should there be any future disputes with persons of the News Corp universe. That was part of why I took the fight all the way to trial. I don’t have any plans for further litigation — yet I also have no intention of throwing away all of my personal rights.”

Barrow wrote that he anticipates a fresh start, “able to earn a living albeit with a number of restrictions and a blighted credit history”.

News Corp declined to comment on the case.

Update: Barrow has responded to this article on his blog.

Peter Fray

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