Lawyers for Lachlan Murdoch have told a Sydney judge the company which owns Crikey has been “directing ridicule and hatred” towards him and “publicly claiming martyrdom” as a date is set for his defamation trial.
- Lachlan Murdoch, son of News Corp’s Rupert Murdoch, launched legal proceedings against Crikey in August
- Crikey’s owner Private Media is defending the claims as opinion
- The case is set to return to court next month
The Fox Corporation CEO is suing Private Media in the Federal Court over an analysis article, published in June, about hearings into the deadly January 2021 insurrection on the Capitol by Donald Trump supporters.
He claims he was defamed after the article referred to the Murdochs and Fox News commentators as “unindicted co-conspirators”.
As the matter came before Justice Michael Wigney for the first time, barrister Sue Chrysanthou SC, for Mr Murdoch, took issue with the “conduct” of her opponents over the past month.
She said the CEO of Private Media had this week published a video purporting to explain their defence.
“It would appear how the respondents are portraying the proceedings and are portraying what is, in fact, in issue is very different to what the pleaded issues are,” she said.
“That has had a number of effects, including the no doubt increase in subscriptions and money paid to a GoFundMe account that has been set up, but also directing ridicule and hatred towards my client.”
Ms Chrysanthou said billboards had appeared in Melbourne, which were paid for by the respondents.
“People who have been publicly claiming martyrdom for the last four weeks because they’re being sued by someone wealthy, where they mock my client on public billboards.”
Justice Wigney set a nine-day hearing to begin on March 27, but also said he will at some point direct the parties to attend mediation before a registrar.
“Cool, commercial minds may prevail,” he said.
“I admire Your Honour’s optimism,” Ms Chrysantho replied.
In defence documents, Private Media denies the article was defamatory of Mr Murdoch and raises three defences, including the new public interest defence introduced as part of reforms from July last year.
“The Article concerned Mr Trump’s conduct in connection with the election of November 2020, the state of American democracy, the polarisation within American politics borne out by the events of January 6, and the media environment in which those events took place, all of which were matters of public interest,” the documents say.
They also flag defences of implied Constitutional freedom of communication about political matters and a failure to accept a reasonable offer of amends.
The defence documents say that the phrase “unindicted co-conspirator” was included as a reference to President Nixon, who was described by a grand jury in the same terms in the conspiracy to cover up the Watergate burglary.
Editor-in-chief of Crikey Peter Fray and political editor Bernard Keane believed the references to Mr Murdoch were a statement of Keane’s opinion, “based on his knowledge of the extensive reportage of Fox News’s involvement in the events leading up to Jan 6 and the Murdochs’s role as the guiding minds of Fox’s editorial strategy and programming”.
They also believed the references to the Murdochs were “self-evidently hyperbolic, using creative licence to pick up on the notorious identification of Nixon as the ‘unindicted co-conspirator’ in Watergate and drawing a parallel to the January 6 riots,” the documents say.
Private Media argues nobody would read the words literally as suggesting that the Murdochs were guilty of criminal conspiracy or treason.
The case returns to court on October 10.