ABC ditches truth, argues 'public interest' in defamation case

The broadcaster argues public interest in allegations takes precedence over truth in high-profile war crime allegations trial.

ABC ditches truth, argues 'public interest' in defamation case
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The ABC has argued that alleged war crimes by Australian soldiers were of such public interest that allegations should be able to be aired without fear of legal action.

The argument was made in a defamation trial where ex-commando Heston Russell is suing the national broadcaster over claims Australian troops killed an Afghani prisoner rather than transport him on a helicopter.

Russell, who was named by the ABC, denies the allegations, and claims his reputation was ruined by the report.

The ABC’s public interest defence comes after a Federal Court previously ruled that the articles contained defamatory statements and that truth was not an adequate defence.

On Monday, ABC barrister Nicholas Owens SC said that “free speech and public interest rises well above truth” as a priority.

He quoted from a 1964 case in the US where a court ruled that newspapers were protected even when publishing false statements.

“(There is) a profound national commitment to the principle that debate on public issues should be uninhibited, robust and wide-open, and that it may well include vehement, caustic and sometimes unpleasantly sharp attacks on government and public officials,” Justice William Brennan wrote.

Owens told the court that Russell agreed it was in the public interest for journalists to report alleged war crimes by Australian soldiers.

He insisted that ABC journalists had a reasonable belief that what they were reporting about Australian soldiers was true.

Russell told the court on Friday that he was “absolutely shocked” when he read the ABC reports.

He said the reports destroyed the legacy of his platoon.

The trial in front of Justice Michael Lee continues.

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  • By Avi Yemini

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