Unfriendly fire the battle for reputation

Australian army

The Federal Court defamation battle between Australia’s top investigative reporter, Nick McKenzie, and the war hero, Victoria Cross recipient Ben Roberts-Smith, has reputational ramifications spreading far beyond the direct participants.

At stake is the credibility of Roberts-Smith and Channel Nine’s outlets. On the other side, the billionaire owner of Seven, Kerry Stokes, who now employs Roberts-Smith, has backed him to the hilt.

The case also has serious ramifications for the Australian Defence Force and its elite SAS, and will be watched closely by Defence Minister Peter Dutton and the ADF leadership.

The case resumed in Sydney last week and heard extraordinary testimony from SAS soldiers that Roberts-Smith executed, and ordered the executions of Afghan prisoners. It does not bode well for Roberts-Smith, although proceedings have a way to go and his defence is yet to make its case.

Pressure on all involved is high.

Nick McKenzie tweeted: “After 3 years of intense litigation, on Wed we call our first witnesses - SAS soldiers - in the defamation case brought by Ben Roberts-Smith VC/funded by his billionaire backer Kerry Stokes. We seek to prove RS committed war crimes. Finally, Australians get to hear our case.”

The court has heard how Roberts-Smith summoned one of the witnesses to a meeting over coffee, who told him he would stand by his version of events. “Oh, so it’s going to be like that, is it?” he said Mr Roberts-Smith replied.” The serving soldier said he told Mr Roberts-Smith: “There is no way I am going to get up on a stand and lie, and I hope no one else does”… He goes to me, ‘that’s it, then’.”

The stories by McKenzie and the elder statesman of investigative journalism, Chris Masters, in
The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age have accused Roberts-Smith of committing or being party to up to six unlawful killings in Afghanistan. The media outlets have also accused the VC recipient of bullying some comrades and striking a former lover. He has vigorously denied all allegations, and says the stories against him were driven by jealous colleagues who resented his being awarded the VC.
Nine will run a defence of truth to their allegations in three former Fairfax papers (two now in the Nine stable) that Roberts-Smith, Australia’s most decorated living soldier, committed a series of war crimes, including murder.
Billionaire owner of Seven, Kerry Stokes, who also sits on the War Memorial board, has backed Roberts-Smith, providing more than $1 million towards legal costs.

Nine has a lot to lose, reputationally and financially.

Bruce McClintock, counsel for Roberts-Smith, stated at the opening of the case that it was “a case about courage, devotion to duty and self-sacrifice” on the one hand versus “dishonest journalism, corrosive jealousy and lies” on the other.

The reports by The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age were “outrageous to make an allegation like that [murder] without evidence”. To do so, he said, “justifies the largest award of aggravated damages ever in this country”.

The verdict will play into the future of the ADF, which is still coming to terms with the shocking revelations in Justice Paul Brereton long-awaited report into war crimes allegations against Australia’s special forces, released in November 2020.

It will also have implications for investigative journalism if it’s two leading lights are found to have falsely accused a war hero of murder. I have worked closely with Nick and, early in my journalism career, Chris. They are both fine, fearless and determinedly ethical journalists, it’s hard to imagine two stronger standard bearers for their profession.

By Mark Forbes, Director of Reputation

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