In a significant legal triumph, former special forces commando Heston Russell has emerged victorious in his defamation case against the ABC, securing $390,000 in damages.
The Federal Court judge, Justice Michael Lee, ruled that the national broadcaster failed to prove that their articles, aired in 2020 and 2021, were reported in the public interest.
Russell, who sued the ABC and journalists Mark Willacy and Josh Robertson, alleged that the stories falsely implicated him in the shooting of an unarmed prisoner in Afghanistan.
The court heard that the allegations stemmed from a US Marine named "Josh," who contacted journalist Willacy about a gunshot-like sound he heard over the radio.
During the nine-day trial, Justice Lee emphasized that the public interest defense couldn't be invoked arbitrarily. He criticised the ABC's conduct, including their withdrawal and reinstatement of the defence, as defensive and misleading.
Justice Lee stated that while journalist Willacy might have believed in the public interest of the articles, his belief was deemed unreasonable in the circumstances.
Outside the courtroom, Russell, accompanied by his legal team, expressed his gratitude for the court's decision. He condemned the ABC's false allegations against Australian veterans and emphasised the need for integrity in journalism.
Russell's victory marks a crucial moment in Australian media law, clarifying the boundaries of public interest reporting and holding media outlets accountable for their content.
The case is set to return to court later this month, where Russell is seeking indemnity costs from the ABC.