Record libel award in Australia

5RB members act for successful claimants against radio host and broadcasters

Prominent Australian radio host Alan Jones and two radio stations that carry his broadcasts have been ordered to pay general damages of A$938,746 (£514,000) to each of Denis, John, Neill and Joe Wagner by the Supreme Court of Queensland.

This is a record defamation award in Australia, totalling A$3.76m (£2.06m).

The Court also granted a permanent injunction to restrain the defendants from publishing the same or similar words of the plaintiffs.

In a series of 32 radio broadcasts between October 2014 and August 2015, involving some 80 defamatory meanings, Jones repeatedly accused the plaintiffs, successful industrialists, of callously causing the deaths of 12 people after an illegally constructed dam wall at a quarry owned by them collapsed; of conspiring in a high-level cover-up with police and politicians to conceal their wrongdoing and deny justice to the grieving families; of bullying and intimidating powerless members of the community; of fraud and corruption; of building a public airport through corruption and breaking planning laws in the process; and of being motivated only by self-interest and greed.

Although initially relying on defences including truth, honest opinion and statutory qualified privilege (similar to the former Reynolds defence), fair report (in relation to several of the broadcasts), and offer of amends, by the end of the trial the defendants only strongly pursued a defence of justification.

All of the defences failed. The Court found numerous matters of aggravation in respect of the conduct of Mr Jones, which the plaintiffs claimed increased both their hurt and the damage to their reputations. These included obvious instances of wilful blindness on his part; vicious and spiteful language; failure to enquire; and repeating the allegations at trial. The Court also made a finding of malice against Mr Jones.

In light of the fact that Mr Jones in his evidence continued his attack on the plaintiffs, repeated the allegations and gave no undertaking not to repeat them, the Court considered injunctive relief appropriate.

The previous highest libel damages awarded in Australia were A$4.5m to actress Rebel Wilson, but that sum was principally made up of an award of special damages, which was disallowed on appeal. Her general damages were A$600,000.

5RB’s Tom Blackburn SC and Patrick McCafferty appeared for the Claimants.

The judgment is available here.