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Jan 28, 2015

Crikey list: politicians who have sued media outlets for defamation

For all our politicians profess a love of free speech, here are some of our elected representatives who decided to cash in on a media that might have been a little too free ...

This list is adapted from Crikey’s 2002, 2005 and 2009 lists on this subject, with more recent updates included. We have, however, limited this list to elected politicians (not staffers or political operatives) who have sued media outlets over their coverage. Also, threats to sue are a dime a dozen, so we’ve only included politicians who have actually filed writs. It was first published in January 2015, and had several new names updated in April 2015. Have we missed anyone? Get in touch.

A massive thanks to the lovely people at Marque Lawyers for trawling the case books to fill the gaps in our research, which they volunteered to do for “fun”. 

Tony Abbott: Along with then-treasurer Peter Costello, Abbott successfully sued Labor gadfly and walking litigation machine Bob Ellis in 1998 over false allegations related to their personal lives. Both politicians and their wives shared in $277,500 in damages. Ellis claims it cost his publisher Random House $1 million (the publisher had to pulp and print a second edition with the untrue allegation excised). It all seems water under the bridge now — Abbott personally launched Ellis’ The Capitalism Delusion in 2009.

Joh Bjelke-Petersen: The infamous Queensland premier sued the ABC over allegations of corruption and rorts in his government. He also sued Channel Nine and collected a $400,000 settlement, which the dodgy entrepreneur said was to help him do business in Queensland. He also sued then-opposition leader Tom Burns on numerous occasions and always used Ebsworths for his various other defo writs, which totalled more than 20.

Neal Blewett: The former Labor health minister successfully sued a magazine that criticised his policies towards AIDS and said he was gay. Years later he came out and now lives with his male partner in the Blue Mountains.

Nick Bolkus: Sued Crikey in the Adelaide District Court and also won a settlement from Channel Seven in the late 1980s after Dennis Grant went on Tonight Live with Steve Vizard and said that Bolkus had been involved in a “punch-up” at a post-budget drinks. Cabinet made a decision to fund Bolkus’ action, but the settlement was rumored to be about $40,000 plus costs, so the taxpayer got their money back. Crikey eventually settled in 2002 for $25,000 with no apology required.

Peter Breen: The former NSW Liberal politician (who was in 2014 briefly advising Ricky Muir) brought an action against Nationwide News in 2007 over the newspaper’s publication relating to Breen’s book, Life as a Sentence:The True Story of the Janine Balding Murder. Breen claimed the publication imputed he had romantic relations with two convicted rapists and murderers. Both parties were granted leave to make amendments to their pleadings, but it appears that the matter settled after these amendments. Breen himself was successfully sued for defamation by two police detectives in relation to the book.

Jim Cairns: Gough Whitlam’s disastrous treasurer and his secretary, Junie Morosi, sued The National Times over an article alleging they were each involved in an improper sexual relationship. He admitted the relationship in 2002.

Arthur Calwell: The federal ALP leader in the 1960s sued The Sunday Review over an article that said Calwell was really a traditional conservative conducting a rearguard action against progressive socialist policies favoured by Whitlam.

Stephen Conroy: The Labor senator and former communications minister once sued 774 ABC Melbourne morning presenter Jon Faine (as Faine revealed on radio in 2010).

Peter Costello: Successfully sued (with his wife) over Bob Ellis’ Goodbye Jerusalem. Also sued John Halfpenny in the ’80s over a speech at Monash University — reported by The Age — in which he essentially said Costello was like the emperor with no clothes. Cossie only sued Halfpenny (not The Age) and reached a tidy out-of-court settlement.

Joan Coxsedge: High-profile Victorian ALP upper house member sued the Toorak Times in the ’80s over a story that had labelled her a traitor for revealing the home address of the ASIO boss. Toorak Times editor Jack Pacholli was a legendary Melbourne gutter publisher who successfully avoided having to pay many of his legal losses by appointing his dog as publisher.

Noel Crichton-Browne: the former WA Liberal senator sued senator Sue Knowles, resulting in a $20,000 settlement in his favour.

Ralph Clarke: The South Australian Labor politician brought proceedings against Channel Nine in 2005 in relation to a television broadcast where statements were made that, Clarke alleged, could be understood to mean that he had been convicted of domestic violence and was responsible for making his partner attempt suicide. Channel Nine raised the defences of fair comment on a matter of public interest and justification. The South Australian Supreme Court held in an interlocutory hearing that the facts relied on by Channel Nine in the broadcast which were not notorious, or widely known by public viewers, and could not be relied upon to support their defence of fair comment. The matter appears to have settled some time after this.

Patrick Conlon: Another South Australian Labor MP, Conlon successfully sued the Sunday Mail over articles falsely asserting that he was in politics just for perks like attending sporting events. He was awarded $40,000 in damages.

Nicole Cornes: A prominent South Australian newspaper columnist and candidate in the 2007 federal election, Cornes sued Channel Ten and Mick Malloy personally over a 2008 episode of Before the Game. During the episode in question, Molloy insinuated that Cornes was having an affair with AFL player Stuart Dew (Cornes is married to AFL player Graham Cornes). The court found that reasonable viewers would have taken Molloy’s remarks literally. Cornes was awarded around $100,000 in damages.

Michael Danby: The federal Labor member for Melbourne Ports successfully sued Channel Seven, Sky News and Glenn Milne in 1998 for alleging he had engaged in domestic violence. Will Houghton QC acted for Seven but never thought the matter would actually get to court.

Concetta Fierravanti-Wells: The NSW Liberal Senator commenced defamation proceedings against Nationwide News over two Sunday Telegraph articles concerning travel entitlements of members of parliament and a study tour taken by the senator to Italy. The NSW Supreme Court struck out the majority of imputations the senator claimed were defamatory. Nationwide News then attempted to amend its defence, but the motion was denied. It appears the matter settled some time after this in 2011.

Joel Fitzgibbon: Kevin Rudd’s former defence minister and Helen Liu sued The Age in 2010 for claims about their financial and political relationship.

Paul Gibson: The former NSW Labor MP (and rugby league player) commenced defamation proceedings against News in 2007 over comments made in three separate articles published in The Daily Telegraph. The articles allegedly implied that he had accepted taxpayer funded overseas study tours where he failed to attend the meetings he was there to attend. A NSW jury found that the imputations complained of were not defamatory, leading to an appeal by Gibson. The NSW Supreme Court of Appeal dismissed Gibson’s appeal.

John Gorton: The former Liberal prime minister sued the ABC over a This Day Tonight interview by Richard Carleton in which it was implied that Gorton had instructed Malcolm Fraser to issue a false denial of a story that he knew to be true.

David Gray: the former Labor MP for Syndal in the Victorian Parliament sued The Sun News Pictorial but lost and was ordered to pay the costs of the five-day hearing after the judge said The Sun News Pictorial had written a fair report of Jeff Kennett’s claims in Parliament that Gray was involved in the preparation and distribution of bogus Nuclear Disarmament Party how-to-vote cards at the 1985 Nunawading byelection.

Pauline Hanson: Sued the ABC when Triple J played the Pauline Pantsdown song I’m a Backdoor Man. The song accused her of being a homosexual and a generally unsavoury character, and the court ordered that it not be played again.

Sarah Hanson-Young: Sued Bauer Media’s Zoo Magazine after it superimposed her face on that of a bikini model, as part of a bid to convince her to pose for a “tasteful” lingerie spread for the lads mag in 2012. In 2015, the New South Wales Supreme Court issued a judgment in her favour and forced Zoo to publish an apology on its website. Hanson-Young said it was important for young women to see their leaders take a stand against sexism. Damages were not disclosed.

Bob Hawke: Has sued most outlets over the years and received what Crikey believes to be $3 million in total payouts, which built various pools, tennis courts and new wings in his homes.

Billy Hughes: the Prime Minister sued the Daily Mail in 1922 over an article alleging he lied over a land sale to the Government of Japan.

Joe Hockey: The Treasurer sued Fairfax after front-page May 2014 splashes in The Sydney Morning Herald, Age and Canberra Times detailed the money corporate types paid for an audience with him. The SMH and Age articles bore the headline “Treasurer for Sale”. Hockey said Fairfax had gone to print with what it knew were inaccurate imputations. Fairfax maintained the piece was factually accurate. A Federal Court ruling found the articles were accurate, but awarded Hockey $200,000 for tweets and newspaper posters that without the broader context found in the article were found to be defamatory. Fairfax is considering whether to appeal.

Jeff Kennett: Issued lots of writs including against The Age, The Australian and Packer’s Nine Network, which yielded a $400,000 settlement. He also sued then-Victorian opposition leader John Brumby and another Labor critic, David White. Famously came undone when he lost a defo case against The Australian in 1999.

James Killen: The Queensland Liberal politician and founder of the Young Liberals sued the Mungo MacCallum and The National Review over a 1976 article that stated he’d had an affair with cabinet colleague Margaret Guilfoyle.

Ian Michael Macdonald: The former NSW state Labor politician over a 7pm news segment regarding the recent ICAC investigations. The case was settled out of court in March this year.

Campbell Newman. The Queensland Premier declared he would sue shock jock Alan Jones over Jones’ claims on Fairfax station 4BC that the Premier had “lied” to him in comments made privately about the New Acland coal mine. Newman was joined with a bevy of other LNP politicians in the actions, which at last count included Deputy Premier Jeff Seeney, Treasurer Tim Nichols, assistant to the Premier Deb Frecklington, and Health Minister and former LNP leader Lawrence Springborg. Jones laughed them off.  “Goodness knows how many times I’ve communicated with him on a range of issues and those communications have been unanswered,” Jones said. “So imagine my surprise yesterday when I did receive correspondence running to 35 pages from him and his sidekick, Jeff Seeney. Nice to hear from you, Mr Newman.” Jones isn’t short of funds, but litigation expert Clive Palmer offered to pay his legal costs. Pundits called it the biggest political defamation case in Australian history. Newman dropped the case in April 2015.

Eddie Obeid: The NSW Labor minister has sued various partners and critics for defamation and other things over the years. Most famously, the powerbroker, who we can now safely say was corrupt, sued Fairfax investigative reporters Kate McClymont and Anne Davies over a Walkley-winning series of articles that stated he had sought bribes on behalf of the Labor party. He was awarded $162,173 in damages, along with $1 million in costs.

Clive Palmer: The property mogul-turned-politician tried to sue The Australian over a series of articles by Hedley Thomas last year investigating his relationship with Chinese-owned Citic Pacific. But after the Queensland Supreme Court rejected three of the five so-called defamatory articles against Palmer, finding they carried no imputations against him, he dropped the whole thing. He characterised it on Twitter as having been dismissed by “mutual consent”. “No order of costs. Rather spend time with Fairfax voters. Regardless of this decision, everyone knows [The Australian’s] biased and has an agenda against me.”

Graham Richardson: The former Labor powerbroker-turned-media commentator sued Fairfax after it published an article by Kate McClymont in Good Weekend in 2005 that carried the false allegation he’d organised the bashing in 1980 of Labor politician Peter Baldwin. Two years later, Fairfax settled out of court, reportedly for $50,000.

Andrew Stoner: The former leader of the NSW National Party and former NSW deputy premier brought a case against 2GB host Alan Jones and Greens MP Jeremy Buckingham this year. The case is ongoing.

Marie Tehan: The former Victorian health minister sued The Age when the Kennett forces were trying to maximise the pressure on then-editor Bruce Guthrie. The flurry of writs worked, as Guthrie was soon sacked.

Andrew Theophanous: Sued the Herald Sun in October, 1994, over a Bruce Ruxton letter that became the basis of the political comment defence, which won in the High Court. Theophanous subsequently lost his federal seat of Calwell when he ran as an independent after being disendorsed by Labor when charged with running an immigration racket. His subsequent conviction for corruption laid bare his past as a corrupt factional warlord who used his political position to obtain money and sex for illegal acts.

John Tingle: Laura Tingle’s dad and Shooters Party MP in NSW John Tingle got $75,000 from 2GB for a sledge from shock jock Ron Casey. The same Casey got himself in trouble a few years back for attacking Nokia as an “Asian” company taking away Australian jobs in the technology sector.

Craig Thomson: The former Labor-turned-crossbench MP sued The Sydney Morning Herald over articles it published in 2009 saying he’d used Health Services Union money on prostitutes and cash withdrawals. He dropped his suit in 2011 — though he told the Fair Work Commission he’d settled, a characterisation Fairfax disputed.

Malcolm Turnbull: Former merchant banker and current Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull settled with the AFR in the ACT Supreme Court over an Andrew Main piece that had called him “part polymath, part sociopath”. Turnbull also sued Richard Ackland in 1980 over a piece in the SMH involving Turnbull’s girlfriend’s cat. It was settled out of court. Turnbull also sued Mark Latham for defamation after Latham said Turnbull was “unfit for public office”. Latham was forced to issue a public apology (he said he apologised to Turnbull “for any hurt which my comments have caused him”) and paid unspecified costs to Turnbull.

Tom Uren: The recently deceased senior Left ALP minister in the 1960s, ’70s and ’80s sued the Sun-Herald over allegations he had been duped into assisting Soviet spies in the early 1960s.

Neville Wran: Sued the ABC in the early ’80s over allegations he had attempted to interfere with the natural course of justice.

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8 comments

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8 thoughts on “Crikey list: politicians who have sued media outlets for defamation

  1. Limited News

    The new HWL Ebsworth lawyers building 6 National Circuit in Canberra was built on the site of the Masonic lodge. Is there a new Masonic lodge atop that building too? Did Joh Bjelke-Petersen use Ebsworths because of a Masonic connection?

  2. Djbekka

    Neal Blewett – not that simple. Twas a political swipe and a political law suit.

  3. Stuart Coyle

    So of those who sued for defamation and then were shown to have actually done the things
    that they were supposedly defamed about, how many will have to give the money back or get done for perjury?

    I bet none of them ever do.

  4. Limited News

    Worth mentioning that in many South East Asian countries it is actually a crime to defame not just a person, but an institution. eg a lady was sent to jail in Indonesia for complaining about hospital treatment on Facebook. Indonesians would be stung by the comparison, but at least in Communist China you can criticise non-state institutions. Democracy is pure theatre when all you can do is the equivalent of Facebook-like everything but never ever critique.

  5. Gavin Moodie

    Didn’t Crikey pay out big defamation damages for a piece written by Bernard Keane several years ago?

  6. AR

    StuartC – prime example being Obeid but in Blighty a couple of high profile cases such as Jeffrey Archer & Jonathan Atkins, both got big bikkie$, were subsequently found to have perjured themselves and did porridge but did not have to repay their ill gotten gains.
    Unfortunately for the crooks & shysters “the grreater the truth,the greater the libel“.
    Fact/reality is no defence, just as public interest is no defence for whistle blowers.

  7. Myriam Robin

    Gavin – that was to Mark Textor, who hasn’t been elected. Thus left off this list, which only included elected politicians suing media.

  8. Gavin Moodie

    Thanx very much Robin. It was before I became a subscriber so I wasn’t paying much attention at the time. But the size of the damages caught my attention.