It was a classic of the “gotcha” journalism genre.
Peter V’landys, CEO of Racing NSW and one of the most powerful players in the game of New South Wales politics and business, sat down for an interview with the ABC’s 7.30 program, having been invited to discuss “the animal welfare reforms and integrity measures introduced by racing regulators since 2016-17”, including Racing Australia’s publicly released data “confirming that less than 1% of horses have ended up at abattoirs/knackeries”.
V’Landys was the only thoroughbred racing industry regulator to agree to an interview, and he played a starring role in the lengthy program 7.30 produced about what really happens to “retired” racehorses in this country. Perhaps he should have been more suspicious, given that his interviewer was Caro Meldrum-Hanna, usually a Four Corners reporter and well-known for sensational exposés.
He seemed relatively comfortable, however, chatting about how Racing NSW had worked hard to ensure that racehorses were having a “good retirement”. He didn’t see the curve ball until well after it had passed him:
Meldrum-Hanna: How many NSW horses are ending up at a knackery or abattoir? What is your data telling you here?
V’Landys: Well, in NSW, zero.
V’Landys: Because it is against the rules of racing.
Meldrum-Hanna: Are you sure zero?
These are the facts, as 7.30 exposed: the Australian racehorse breeding industry produces around 13,000 foals each year. They have an average racing life of two or three years, so about 8500 are “retired” each year. According to the industry, fewer than 1% of these retirees are destroyed; the rest are rehomed and live out happy lives on the farm.
In fact, according to experts, at least 4000 of the 8500 are being speedily sent to abattoirs. 7.30 showed graphic video footage of the appalling ways in which they die, and identified that many of them end up, literally, as pet food.
The point is, it’s not zero. It’s not in the same postcode as zero.
V’Landys sued the ABC for defamation, claiming that 7.30 had broadcast a series of extremely damaging imputations about him, all of which boiled down to this: that he was lying about the wastage rate in the racing industry and was callously allowing it to continue because he was indifferent to the carnage.
Well, anyone would be upset. As Justice Michael Wigney in the Federal Court found, 7.30 had made “V’Landy’s assertions appear somewhat naive, misplaced and perhaps even foolish”. Powerful men don’t like being made to look the fool.
The judge’s impression of the program was that, overall, “the regulators, including Mr V’Landys, did not really know what was going on; that their ‘data’ was inaccurate and unreliable and … ineffective and inadequately enforced. That may have conveyed that [they] were somewhat incompetent or ineffective.”
That much would be hard to deny, flowing as it did from the juxtaposition between V’Landys’ own confident words and the horrific video footage 7.30 had obtained. Meldrum-Hanna didn’t miss; as the judge noted, she had been careful to not tip V’Landys off, and the program was put together in a way that was clearly designed to shock. The trap was carefully laid, and he fell right into it.
That V’Landys would have been left feeling hurt, embarrassed, and probably mortified, was also not really in contention. Anyone would, in his shoes.
However, to win your defamation case, you need more than just the fact that someone published something that made you look bad. The rules require that you plead exactly what you say the publisher said which defamed you. V’Landys went with extremely serious imputations, as I’ve explained. He then had to prove that 7.30 had conveyed those imputations, otherwise his case would fail.
The problem, as the judge pointed out numerous times, was that all V’landys’ asserted defamatory imputations necessarily included one essential element: that he knew about the slaughter. He couldn’t be said to be dishonest in his interview answers, or that he was permitting the abattoir trade to continue, if he didn’t actually know it was happening.
In fact, the judge found, the clear impression that 7.30 gave its viewers was that V’Landys didn’t know what was going on. He was presented as an innocent and over-confident dupe, not a callous horse-killer.
Therefore, his case fell down at the first hurdle. The ABC didn’t have to rely on its defences, and his claims to hurt feelings (and that Meldrum-Hanna had been motivated by malice against him) went nowhere. He lost, and will be paying both his own and the ABC’s legal costs.
Unless he appeals (which he has said he will do) and succeeds. Personally, I think appealing would be a good example of one of the other ubiquitous features of the industry V’Landys oversees: the throwing of good money after bad.