Newspaper ordered to pay significant damages for defaming former journalist
A retired Townsville journalist was awarded $100,000 damages for compensatory and aggravated damages over allegations published in a national Australian newspaper that he was “habitually intoxicated” and lost his job as a result.
- Whether allegedly defamatory imputations were substantially true;
- Whether an award for aggravated damages was appropriate.
Malcolm Weatherup (the plaintiff), a former court reporter for the Townsville Bulletin, sued National News Pty Ltd (the defendant), the publisher of The Australian newspaper, claiming that he was defamed by an article that appeared in The Australian on 16 June 2014 (the Article).
The plaintiff alleged that the Article conveyed defamatory imputations or meanings concerning him, specifically, that the plaintiff was a person who was habitually intoxicated and incurred the wrath of judges and lost his employment as a consequence. The claim was defended on the grounds that the imputations (if defamatory) were substantially true and, by reason of three contextual imputations (also alleged to be substantially true), the allegedly defamatory imputations did not further harm the plaintiff’s reputation.
The issues were tried before a jury which held that two imputations were not substantially true. The jury also held that harm was done to the plaintiff’s reputation by the publication of a contextual implication in the Article that the plaintiff had, in a fit of anger, committed wilful damage by kicking his neighbour’s car.
The plaintiff made no claim for economic loss but claimed both compensatory and aggravated damages.
The defendant submitted that the substantial truth of the allegations should be considered in the assessment of damages and called five witnesses who gave evidence of occasions when they had observed the plaintiff to be affected by alcohol during the course of his employment. On this basis, the defendant asserted that an award of aggravated damages was not indicated.
The plaintiff did not suggest that he was abstemious from alcohol but led evidence from himself and three witnesses refuting the defendant’s allegations. He argued that the damage caused by the defamatory matter was not mitigated by the contextual truth defence.
The court held that the defendant’s evidence fell well short of proving habitual intoxication on the part of the plaintiff or that the plaintiff was obliged to leave his employment as a result of that intoxication.
The court held that the plaintiff was entitled to compensation for the harm done to his personal reputation, for consolation for the personal distress and hurt caused by the Article and vindication to his reputation and that the plaintiff was entitled to an award of aggravated damages. The plaintiff was awarded $100,000, with one quarter of that amount attributed to aggravated damages.
Implications for you
This decision provides a reminder that, where defamation is prima facie established, a defendant carries the onus of proving any defences. Failure to discharge that onus may result in a significant award of damages to the plaintiff, including aggravated damages in appropriate cases.