Court: Alan Jones Vs Wager continues
The Alan Jones show started at 10.02am when the man you don’t want to cross on talkback radio strode to the witness box. Businessman John Wagner sat in the front row of the public gallery, hanging on every word.
Instead of presiding over the court of public opinion on his top-rating breakfast program, Jones was appearing in a court of law, the star turn in a defamation action that could rewrite the record books if the 77-year-old broadcaster and his employer, Macquarie Media, go down.
Source: News Corp
Alan Jones holds court from witness box
Mr Wagner and his brothers, Denis, Neill and Joe, are seeking an eye-watering $4.8 million in damages over a series of broadcasts in which Jones blamed them for the deaths of 12 people in the 2011 flood disaster at Grantham, west of Brisbane, and suggested the rich-listed family had corruptly acquired approval to build a $1.25 billion airport outside their home town of Toowoomba.
Cross-examined in the Queensland Supreme Court for nearly four hours by Sydney silk Tom Blackburn SC, for the Wagners, Jones insisted he had been justified in referring to the deaths at Grantham as “municipal murder”, caused by the collapse during the flood of earthworks at a quarry operated by the Wagner family.
“Municipal murder were the words used in a letter which I read honestly to my listeners, and it conveyed what those listeners and many across Australia were feeling, and I read it,” he said.
“And I was trying to suggest, as I am continuing to suggest even here, that we still have no answers as to how 12 people died.”
Mr Blackburn: “You called them murderers.”
Jones: “I didn’t call them murderers.”
Jones, who grew up on the nearby Darling Downs, took up the claims by some survivors that a “bund” bordering the Wagners’ quarry on Lockyer Creek collapsed at the height of the flood and unleashed the torrent, causing loss of life that otherwise would have been avoided in the devastated town.
However, successive commissions of inquiry have found this was wrong.
Digging in yesterday, the veteran broadcaster said of the Wagner brothers: “They built the bund, the bund collapsed, 12 people died. I think the evidence is in the deaths of 12 people who received no answer.”
Jones accepted his criticism of the Wagners had been “savage” but, in one of a succession of fiery exchanges, rejected Mr Blackburn’s characterisation that he had been vicious towards them.
“I’m saying my criticism has been accurate,” he insisted.
“I won’t use the vicious — that’s your word, not mine.”
The contrast of styles could not have been more stark. Jones, dressed in his trademark blazer and pink tie, spoke in rapid fire bursts, his face reddening as he took umbrage at the questioning. Mr Blackburn’s delivery was low key but needle sharp.
Judge Peter Flanagan delivered the kind of advice to Jones that the broadcaster usually dishes out to prime ministers and premiers: “If you could answer the question directly, we’ll get on with this much faster,” he said.
Jones said his on-air onslaught against the Wagners, run primarily from 2013 to until they sued for defamation in 2015, stemmed from his desire to ease the anguish of Grantham residents who believed the story of what had happened to them in the flood had been ignored and covered up.
“What has disturbed me, which has led to these continuous broadcasts, is that the Wagners continually denied that the bund — the wall around the quarry — was man-made. They argued it was part of the natural landscape, for years and years and years,” Jones said.
He said the Wagners’ stance “inflamed and angered” Grantham residents. “What they have said to me continuously is, it’s one thing to lose your house, it’s one thing to lose your possessions, but what is most hurtful is that we have lost the right to be believed.”
Jones became emotional when recounting the death of 23-month-old baby Jessica Keep in the floods. Reaching for a glass of water, he said: “One of the reasons I have continued to try to get answers to this is that these people have no answers.”
He was questioned by Mr Blackburn about whether he tried to put the allegations he broadcast against the Wagners to the family. The answer was no. Jones said this was because his producers had been told that brothers would not speak to him.
Jones “regarded it as a palpable waste of time” making phone calls to “people who have said you are blackballed”. He told the court: “Now, that was not going to force me to remain silent about the Wagners … they were given a chance to come on to the program and they did not. Full stop.”
The Wagner brothers — partners in the family’s multi-million-dollar construction, manufacturing and transport business — filled a corner of the public gallery with their wives and children. Their elderly parents, Henry and Mary, were also on hand for Jones’s evidence, marking the opening of the defence on day 13 of the marathon trial.
John Wagner, sitting in front of the reserved area, was in Jones’s direct line of vision.
The broadcaster is relying on a defence of fair comment and truth, telling Justice Flanagan: “I am quite prepared for the court to test the truth of what I have said.”
However, on the advice of his legal team, he said he had dropped a defence of qualified privilege for all of the 32 broadcasts in question and of truth in respect of some claims, including that former deputy prime ministers Warren Truss and Barnaby Joyce had conspired with one of the Wagner brothers to “cover each other’s backs” when Justice Walter Sofronoff was appointed in 2015 to conduct his Grantham inquiry.
Jones said he stood by what he had said on air, as this was consistent with the pattern of how “through everything (they) want to get their own way.”
The cross-examination of Jones will continue today.