Defamation: A wicked result for Alan Jones
At 05:37 Alan Jones now the subject of an extraordinary court finding in the Wagner defamation case of a possible $3.75 million hit said he is under injunctions that prevent any comment.
News Corp: Alan Jones made a “wholly inadequate” offer to settle the landmark defamation case brought by Queensland’s rich-listed Wagner brothers, costing the veteran broadcaster and his employers a record $3.75 million in court-awarded damages yesterday after his conduct was judged to be “vicious and spiteful.”
Judge’s $3.75m blast for Alan Jones in Wagner defamation case
Queensland Supreme Court judge Peter Flanagan ruled that Jones had committed the “gravest kind” of defamation by baselessly accusing the Wagners of the “municipal murder” of 12 people in the 2011 Grantham flood disaster, corruption and participating in a cover-up of the deaths.
He also gagged the 2GB star, slapping Jones with orders that prevent him from repeating the defamatory allegations against the Toowoomba businessmen.
“I do feel that I have somehow let down the people of the Lockyer Valley who sought my assistance. As the judge found in this case, I sought to ventilate concerns expressed to me by those people,” Jones said after the judgment came down.
“I am restrained in what I can say because I am now subject to injunctions and will be making no further comment.”
Justice Flanagan detailed how Jones and his lawyers blew the chance to settle the case out of court with the “wholly inadequate” offer of $50,000 to each of the brothers, conveyed on November 27, 2015, along with a draft apology from Jones.
This lacked an expression of regret by the broadcaster or unqualified acknowledgment that the accusations he had levelled against the Wagners were false and would be withdrawn.
“In my view, determined objectively, the offer of amends was not, in all the circumstances, reasonable,” the judge said.
Justice Flanagan said the reputational damage to the Wagners was greater than that inflicted on actress Rebel Wilson when she secured a short-lived defamation payout of $4.5m from magazine publisher Bauer Media, slashed on appeal to $600,000 in June.
The award against Jones and Fairfax Media-controlled Harbour Radio, the licensee of top-rating Sydney talk station 2GB, burst through the $398,500 cap on non-economic defamation damages in Queensland and easily surpassed the national benchmark of $2.6m set last year after Perth barrister Lloyd Rayney was judged to have been defamed when WA police named him as the prime suspect in his wife’s murder.
It fell short of the $4.8m in damages sought by the Wagner brothers, who run a construction-based enterprise worth more than $1 billion including the $200m Toowoomba Wellcamp airport, west of Brisbane.
Justice Flanagan said the damages were aggravated by Jones’s desire to injure the reputations of John, Denis, Neill and Joe Wagner — partners in the family business — and his “wilful blindness” to the truth on the 32 occasions that he laid into them on his syndicated radio show between October 2014 and August 2015.
“Mr Jones agreed that some of the criticism he levelled against the plaintiffs was savage,” the judge said. “I accept the plaintiffs’ submission that the tone of the matters and their content are self-evidently vicious and spiteful.
“In light of Mr Jones’s wilful blindness to the truth or falsity of the imputations conveyed, his conduct in using such language was unjustifiable.”
Denis Wagner told The Australian the family would not have taken legal action had Jones let up on them after a 2015 commission of inquiry into the Grantham tragedy, headed by former state solicitor-general Walter Sofronoff, rejected claims that the partial collapse of earthworks at a Wagner-owned quarry near the Lockyer Valley town unleashed the deadly torrent on January 10, 2011.
Justice Sofronoff found expert hydrological analysis of the flood broadly supported the findings of an earlier inquiry that the quarry, acting as a sinkhole, delayed the arrival of the flood in Grantham by up to 10 minutes and reduced the water level by up to 10cm.
“Had Jones stopped criticising us after the Sofronoff inquiry, that would have been enough,” Mr Wagner said. “We would never have taken the action.”
Macquarie Media — 54 per cent owned by Fairfax Media with minority stakes held by adman John Singleton, investor and corporate adviser John Carnegie and Jones himself — said it was disappointed by the court decision and would be considering the option to appeal. “I need to read the entire judgment very carefully,” Jones said. “I do feel I have somehow let down the people of the Lockyer Valley who sought my assistance. As the judge found in this case, I sought to ventilate concerns expressed by those people.”
A conjoined defamation claim against Nick Cater, executive director of conservative think tank the Menzies Research Centre and a former editor of The Weekend Australian, was dismissed by Justice Flanagan.
Cater thanked Jones and Macquarie for their support: “While I am pleased with the court’s findings towards me in these protracted proceedings, I am disappointed by the findings against Alan Jones, 2GB and (Brisbane affiliate) 4BC.”
Fairfax’s stock price rose slightly to 82.5c, despite the potential hit from the payout. Macquarie had posted a before-tax profit of $24.8m in the 2017 financial year.
Costs in the case — estimated to be as high as $3m — are yet to be determined.