The Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) is asserting that allegations of war crimes committed by Australian soldiers should be able to be reported without fear of legal action, arguing that it is of significant public interest. This argument was presented in a defamation trial where former commando Heston Russell is suing the ABC over claims that Australian troops killed an Afghan prisoner instead of transporting him on a helicopter. Russell, who was named by the ABC, disputes these allegations and maintains that his reputation has been severely damaged by the report.
The ABC’s defense is in response to a previous ruling by the Federal Court, which stated that the articles in question contained defamatory statements and that truth alone was not a sufficient defense. In court, ABC barrister Nicholas Owens SC emphasized the importance of free speech and public interest, stating that they outweigh the requirement of truth. He referred to a 1964 US case where a court ruled that newspapers were protected, even when publishing false statements. Justice William Brennan wrote, “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.”
Owens argued that Russell himself believes it is in the public interest for journalists to report on alleged war crimes committed by Australian soldiers. He further asserted that ABC journalists had a reasonable belief that the information they were reporting was true.
During the trial, Russell expressed his astonishment and dismay upon reading the ABC reports, stating that they had destroyed the legacy of his platoon. The defamation trial is ongoing, with Justice Michael Lee presiding.
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