A Melbourne lawyer has won a defamation case against The Age and Fairfax Digital Media journalist Patrick Bartley.

Damian Sheales sued The Age over a report by Bartley covering a Racing Victoria stewards hearing in August 2015, in which Sheales was representing horse trainers Mark Kavanagh and Danny O’Brien. The article suggested Sheales had missed the facts of the debate over the use of cobalt while making his submissions.

A Supreme Court of Victoria jury found yesterday that the article contained the defamatory imputation that, when Sheales was making submissions to the hearing, he negligently misstated facts about whether cobalt was performance-enhancing in horses, and whether it was harmful.

Kavanagh and O’Brien were facing doping bans after excessive amounts of cobalt was found in the blood of horses they were training.

In closing to the jury, Sheales’ barrister David Gilberton QC, said a number of parts of the article were a “direct attack” on Sheales, and that arguments over whether cobalt was harmful taken up in the article were irrelevant.

“He was acting on behalf of the two trainers. His role was to convince the stewards that these two trainers shouldn’t be stood down. His role wasn’t to tell the stewards the effect of cobalt on horses,” Mr Gilbertson said.

The Age argued that the meaning of the article was substantially true, but the jury found this not to be the case.

Representing The Age, Fairfax Digital Media and Bartley, Dr Matt Collins QC, told the jury that barristers should expect press coverage when they appear in controversial cases.

“In a free country, the media and the rest of us should be free to report on and express our views on what is happening in the courts. Abuses flourish in the dark when those in power are not subject to scrutiny,” Collins said.

Justice John Dixon will decide what the damages will be after hearing submissions from both parties next week. — Emily Watkins

Peter Fray

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