back to top

Treasurer Joe Hockey Has Been Awarded $200,000 In His Defamation Suit Against Fairfax

Hockey sued over "Treasurer For Sale" headlines last year.

Posted on

Two tweets and some old-school advertising posters have brought Fairfax Media undone, with Joe Hockey successfully suing the news organisation for defamation.

Dan Himbrechts / AAP

Hockey will be awarded $200,000 in damages - $120,000 for posters hung in newsagents around Australia with the headline "Treasurer For Sale," and $80,000 for two tweets sent by Fairfax mastheads. The court found the actual content of the stories did not damage the reputation of the treasurer.

"I uphold Mr Hockey's claim that the SMH poster and two matters published on Twitter by The Age with the words "Treasurer for Sale" and "Treasurer Hockey for Sale" were defamatory of him," said Justice Richard White, tabling a 127 page judgement.

"I find that the respondents have not made out their claims of qualified privilege and find that, even if otherwise available, these defence would have been defeated in the case of the SMH articles and the SMH poster by the malice actuating their publication."

The Fairfax Media group - The Age, The Sydney Morning Herald and Canberra Times - ran stories last year, detailing his links with a local fundraising group called the North Sydney Forum.

The nation's treasurer took one of Australia's top media companies to court, complaining that the front page stories were false and had lessened his standing in the community and to his family.

In the judgement, Justice White wrote that Sydney Morning Herald editor Darren Goodsir had "lost objectivity" and was "motivated by animus" following a previous run-in with the treasurer.

Nikki Short / AAPIMAGE

Goodsir had excitedly told journalist Sean Nicholls in an email on the eve of publishing the story, "I have long dreamed... of a headline that screams: Sloppy Joe!" and "I want to have this nailed to the cross in more ways than one."

The judge ruled that this was part of Goodsir's "malice" towards Hockey and meant that the usual defence of "qualified privilege" for defamation was defeated.

Justice White said the 2,466 posters that read "Treasurer For Sale" would have been seen by more than a million people. It was decided that many of those people would have seen them but never read the article.

Nikki Short / AAP

Like the posters, the tweets from The Age's Twitter account were dealt with separately from the published article.

"The Age had about 280,000 followers on its Twitter account and that some 789 only of these had that day downloaded the article," he wrote, referring to the very small click-through rate.

"This meant, counsel submitted, that of those who received the tweet, some 279,000 had not gone on to read the hyperlinked article, making it inappropriate to regard the tweet and the article as one publication."

It appears the Fairfax editorial team could have avoided the whole mess if it went with a different tagline. Justice White suggested some.

"A poster which read 'Hockey: donations and access. Herald investigation' may, for example, have been appropriate. A poster in that form would have had the same number of words as that actually published."

BuzzFeed News spoke to defamation expert at the University of Sydney, Associate Professor David Rolph about the judgement.

He said it sets an interesting precedent for news editors coming up with headlines for Twitter, knowing that many readers won't go on to read the article.

"The brevity of those things poses some risks when you're making some serious allegations which need to be set out," said Rolph, suggesting Australia's courts will see more lawsuits stemming from potentially defamatory tweets.

According to Rolph, Justice White's decision to separate the tweets, posters and articles proves that Australia's defamation laws are very complicated and need urgent reform.

"But why would politicians reform defamation law if they can use it to their own advantage?" he asked.

"It just means there is a chilling effect on political discussion."