Treasurer Joe Hockey tells defamation hearing fundraising body 'massively overplayed' its links to him

The front page of the North Sydney Forum website

Treasurer Joe Hockey is suing Fairfax Media for defamation over a May 2014 front page story headlined “Treasurer for sale”, telling the federal court in Sydney that he was “absolutely devastated” and “stunned” when he saw the paper.

The story outlined how the North Sydney Forum (NSF) was a fundraising group for the MP, charging between $22,000 and $5,500 for membership which gave donors access to a number of functions and meetings with the treasurer present, based on how much they paid.

Hockey’s barrister Bruce McClintock told the court that the story implied his client took bribes and was corrupt and the article was an “act of petty spite” by the editors of the Age and Sydney Morning Herald in retaliation for having to publish an apology over an earlier story about the Treasurer.

Hockey testified today during the opening day of the case and recounted how his father burst into tears, doubting his son, when they spoke on the phone and his daughter asked “whether someone was trying to buy me”.

The father of three said “the only thing you walk out of politics with is your reputation”.

But he appeared to distance himself from the NSF, saying he could not recall going to some of the functions it organised, believed its focus was networking rather than fundraising and didn’t remember writing quotes used under his name.

The forum is run by John Hart, CEO of the industry lobby group Restaurant and Catering Australia. But under oath today, the politician said the organisation “overplayed it. They massively overplayed it,” in claiming it was there to support Hockey’s electoral prospects.

He dismissed the forum’s claim that it was “business and community leaders supporting Joe Hockey MP” as a “marketing line”.

“People use my name for all sorts of different circumstances,” he said.

“I wasn’t intimately involved in the activities of the North Sydney Forum,” Hockey said, adding that he was at “arm’s length” from its activities and did not know how much membership cost.

He did not recall going to a 2009 NSF dinner involving his Coalition colleague Malcolm Turnbull, quipping “Please don’t tell Malcolm Turnbull this”.

Fairfax Media barrister Matthew Collins crossed-examined the MP over a series of tweets about his political opponents, which called them liars and hypocrites. Hockey said he could not recall whether he’d written the tweets.

One said “Access to Rudd, at a price… FACT”, which linked to a Fairfax article.

The trial began with details about how Fairfax CEO Greg Hywood told the treasurer to be thankful for a printed apology over an article that wrongly claimed he had to repay money to Australian Water Holdings, the company linked to the family of corrupt former NSW MP Eddie Obeid and senior Liberal Party figures, which was being investigated by the Independent Commission Against Corruption.

McClintock said the Fairfax boss warned Hockey that if the matter went to court, it could end up “another Craig Thomson”.

Thomson, a former Labor MP, attempted to sue Fairfax over a story about the misuse of his union credit cards. He was ultimately convicted over the matter.

Hockey’s barrister also detailed a series of emails between the editors-in-chief of the Herald and Age, Darren Goodsir and Andrew Holden, and others, after Goodsir had been called at 2am by Hockey’s press secretary demanding an apology for that first article.

Goodsir wrote in one email: “I have long dreamed (well, actually only since last Friday), of a headline that screams: Sloppy Joe! I think we are not far off, but perhaps even more serious than that.”

McClintock said the story his client was suing over finished by the end of March but was held until just before the federal budget to cause “maximum damage”.

The case continues tomorrow.

* Allure Media, publisher of Business Insider Australia, is owned by Fairfax Media.

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