The Spectator Australia is facing an uncertain future after an enormous defamation settlement was made yesterday, in favour of Toowoomba’s rich-lister Wagner family.
London-based The Spectator, which owns the Australian edition, settled the defamation case for $572,674 — one of the highest defamation payouts since Australia introduced uniform laws in 2006. Four Wagner brothers (John, Neill, Denis and Joe) sued over an article in the magazine by Nick Cater that they said implied that a quarry they owned was responsible for the deaths of 12 people in Grantham during the 2011 floods. They were cleared of responsibility by a commission of inquiry in 2015.
The Australian operation’s finances aren’t publicly available, but it’s unlikely that its annual revenues, let alone profits (if there are any, which is doubtful), would be enough to cover the settlement plus the legal costs. The latest circulation figures declared in London show that it sells 8341 copies a week in Australia (but Crikey understands the actual paid circulation is substantially less than this). The parent company is owned by David and Frederick Barclay, who also own the UK’s The Daily Telegraph.
The Spectator presents a stridently — often rabidly — ideological conservative perspective on Australian politics and society. Media analyst Steve Allen said the payout could be the end of the magazine in Australia.
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“Even if the owners have very deep pockets, they might not want to keep funding it,” Allen said.
“That is a really significant payout. In this day and age they wouldn’t be making that sort of money. It’s very tough to make money in publishing, and they’re in print and that’s the toughest part of the market. For a decision like that, they’d have to be having a conversation about whether they keep going or call it quits.”
The Wagners and the The Spectator settled the case just weeks before a trial was due to start. The brothers have also taken out two more defamation actions on similar grounds, which they say will go ahead, involving broadcaster Alan Jones and Nine’s 60 Minutes. Cater has been named in all three defamation actions.
Cater is a former editor of The Weekend Australian and is now executive director at the Menzies Foundation. In a report in October 2015, the ABC’s Media Watch program looked at the story by The Spectator Australia and comments by Cater and Jones.
Spectator Australia editor Rowan Dean did not respond to Crikey‘s request for comment before deadline.