- Alan Jones and radio stations 2GB and 4BC have lost a defamation case brought by a Toowoomba family.
- The broadcaster claimed the family was liable for the deaths of 12 people in flooding in Grantham in 2011.
- Four brothers were awarded $938,000 each in the highest defamation payout in Australian legal history.
Attacks on a Queensland family by Alan Jones that accused them of being responsible for the deaths of 12 people in the 2011 Grantham floods have cost the radio host and the stations that broadcast the accusations $3.75 million in a Queensland defamation case.
Jones was found guilty of “extremely serious” defamation “of the gravest kind” by Justice Peter Flanagan in the Queensland Supreme Court today following a seven-week trial.
Brothers John, Denis, Neill and Joe Wagner sued Jones, journalist Nick Cater, and radio stations 2GB and 4BC over a series of broadcasts between October 2014 and August 2015 that accused the family of responsibility for 12 people dying, including two children after the dam wall of a Lockyer Valley quarry they owned collapsed during the 2011 floods. They were seeking $4.8 million in damages from 76 defamatory imputations.
The claim against Cater was dismissed, with Flanagan finding that during a radio interview with Jones “neither by his own words nor by his conduct did Mr Cater seek to conduce Mr Jones to convey the defamatory imputation that each plaintiff caused the deaths of 12 people”.
Justice Flanagan awarded aggravated damages of $828,102: $750,000 plus interest of $78,102.74, to each of the four brothers for 27 matters complained of involving 2GB and Jones.
The two matters complained of concerning Mr Jones and 4BC, resulted in damages of $110,643, including interest, to each brother.
The total to each brother is $938,746. The $3.75 million combined total is a new defamation record.
“The defamatory broadcasts have caused each of the plaintiffs to suffer profound personal hurt,” Justice Flanagan said.
“In determining the damage done to each plaintiff’s reputation, which includes business reputation, the Court should take into account the grapevine effect arising from the publication of the defamatory matters.”
He found 2GB and 4BC are vicariously liable for the conduct of Jones, who engaged in unjustifiable conduct; and was motivated by a desire to injure the plaintiffs’ reputations, increasing the harm to their feelings and reputations.
“The publication of the defamatory broadcasts was very extensive. The defamatory broadcasts have caused each of the plaintiffs to suffer profound personal hurt and harm to their reputations, which includes their business reputations,” Flanagan said.
Jones accused the brothers of a massive cover-up to hide their alleged culpability.
The defamatory claims also included the imputation the brothers were selfish and greedy and illegally built the Wellcamp Airport in Toowoomba and had “stolen airspace” from the Oakey Army Base, harming national defence interests, and that the development went ahead due to a corrupt relationship with the Coalition in Queensland and Canberra.
Two broadcasts on 4BC conveyed four defamatory imputations, including that the Wagners tried to persuade Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk to be part of their conspiracy to cover up their culpability and that they were corrupt businessmen.
2GB and Jones sought to establish that 57 of the defamatory imputations were substantially true, and defend 10 of the 27 broadcasts as a fair report of the Grantham Floods Inquiry. Both defences failed.
A defence of “honest opinion” by barrister Robert Anderson for Jones was abandoned late in proceedings when he conceded some of the comments by the radio host could not be defended.
A commission of inquiry in the wake of the Grantham floods exonerated the Wagners in October 2015, with the Commissioner Walter concluding the family had been unfairly targeted.
In today’s judgment, Justice Flanagan said a November 2015 offer to make amends by Jones, 2GB and 4BC “was not, in all the circumstances, reasonable” and the non-acceptance of the offer by the Wagners did not constitute a defence to their claims.
The Court has yet to award costs.
Jones, 2GB and 4BC are permanently restrained from publishing or causing to be published any of the matters complained of.
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