SBS and Scott McIntyre have settled the anti-discrimination case brought by the former SBS sports reporter, after he was sacked for a series of tweets criticising the role of the Anzacs in World War I.
McIntyre had criticised the Anzacs as “poorly-read, largely white, nationalist drinkers and gamblers” responsible for “summary execution, widespread rape and theft” in Egypt, Palestine and Japan. He also called the dropping of atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in World War II the “largest terrorist attack in history”. McIntyre was fired by SBS less than 24 hours after posting the tweets — and after then-communications minister Malcolm Turnbull got involved.
McIntyre sued for unfair dismissal. The trial was due to start in court today, but it was settled over the weekend. In a joint statement, McIntyre and SBS said they had “resolved their dispute”:
“SBS acknowledges that Mr McIntyre was a well respected sports reporter with SBS for a period spanning over a decade, and SBS is disappointed that it was unable to continue with his services following his Tweets.
“Mr McIntyre acknowledges that the views expressed in his Tweets on 25 April 2015 were his views and that they were contentious. Mr McIntyre regrets any attribution of his views to SBS and acknowledges that SBS was drawn into controversy following the expression of his views.”
McIntyre’s employment will not be reinstated with SBS. He has now moved overseas with his family and is looking for work. The settlement is not unexpected — lawyers have previously told Crikey the reputational damage to SBS of a drawn-out court case would be significant, and that it was in the broadcaster’s interest to settle early. What’s surprising is the fact that the settlement took so long to achieve — well after McIntyre’s lawyers filed a highly damaging statement of claim that alleged SBS had told McIntyre if he didn’t delete the tweets he could be made “redundant” through an efficiency review.
Maurice Blackburn principal Josh Bornstein — who represented McIntyre on a no-win, no-fee basis — says those who campaigned to have McIntyre fired for his tweets have a lot to answer for.
“People like Malcolm Turnbull, [Australian associate editor] Chris Kenny and others acted as vigilantes,” he told Crikey. “They’re hypocrites who espouse freedom of speech but who’ll try to crush it when it’s inconvenient.”
The case, Bornstein says, was enormously significant. “It was about whether employees have a right to free speech and to express political opinions when outside work,” he said. “Does the ABC weatherman have a right to join the Institute of Public Affairs, or to demonstrate against global warming, or to attend a Reclaim Australia rally? It goes to the heart of democracy and all those lofty ideals we aspire to.”
A settlement, Bornstein says, leaves those questions unanswered. Asked whether he’d advise SBS reporters to freely express political views on Twitter, Bornstein hesitates to give a broad lesson from the whole affair. “What I can say is there’s been a tendency for employers to regulate out-of-hours conduct for some time. I’m hoping that that tendency is on the wane rather than increasing. Time will tell.”
A trial would also have revealed Turnbull’s political influence within SBS. As Crikey revealed last year, the then-communications minister first alerted SBS managing director Michael Ebeid to McIntyre’s tweets.“The comments were so offensive that they deserved the widespread condemnation that they received,” Turnbull said in a statement, adding that staffing decisions weren’t up to him but were SBS’ to make. Nonetheless, Turnbull did at that stage control SBS’ budget, giving him significant potential leverage over the body. It’s unclear what role, if any, his intervention played in SBS’ decision to sack McIntyre.
SBS declined to comment beyond the statement. Crikey asked both SBS and McIntyre about the terms of the agreement, including whether any money changed hands, but both said the settlement was confidential.