Sophie Mirabella sues Benalla Ensign, editor over claim she shoved Cathy McGowan

Cathy McGowan and Sophie Mirabella during a campaign event.
Cathy McGowan and Sophie Mirabella during a campaign event.

Former Liberal frontbencher Sophie Mirabella has launched a defamation action against a North East Victorian newspaper and a well-known former ABC journalist over a story claiming she shoved political rival Cathy McGowan at a photo opportunity during last year's election.

Ms Mirabella filed a writ in the Victorian County Court last week against Benalla Newspapers Pty Ltd, publisher of the Benalla Ensign, and former ABC presenter Libby Price, the paper's editor. 

The action centres around a story the Ensign ran on page four in April last year under the headline "Awkward encounter", which alleged that Ms Mirabella had "very publicly pushed" Ms McGowan at a photo opportunity.

The story, which was also published online, came in the lead-up to last year's federal election, in which both Ms Mirabella and Ms McGowan were competing for the seat of Indi.

The allegations were widely republished by other media outlets, including Fairfax Media. 

At the time, the pair were both attending a visit by Liberal MP Ken Wyatt to the opening of a new wing of an aged care facility in Benalla.

Ms McGowan was eventually re-elected comfortably as an independent in Indi, registering a swing of 4.58 per cent against Ms Mirabella.

In her statement of claim, Ms Mirabella said she had been defamed by the story as it was understood to mean that she had pushed Ms McGowan out of the way of a photograph with Mr Wyatt for her own political reasons. 

Libby Price

Libby Price

"Ms Mirabella has been seriously injured in her feelings, her career and in her reputation both personally, as a politically active participant in the public arena and in her role within the community of North East Victoria," the writ said.

The Benalla Ensign is published weekly and has a circulation of 3878. Price took on the role as the paper's editor in 2014 after 30 years with the ABC, most recently as presenter of the Victorian Country Hour program.

Ms Mirabella is seeking aggravated damages as part of the lawsuit, claiming the story was published when Price and the Ensign knew it was false or were "recklessly indifferent" to the truth. 

She also also said the defendants didn't contact Ms Mirabella or any of her supporters who were present at the event and "instead relied solely" on sources who were "active supporters of Ms McGowan".

The Ensign also knew the story would attract significant media attention and be republished more broadly and would be very damaging to Ms Mirabella's election campaign, the writ stated.

A subsequent apology published by the Ensign in October last year was insufficient, Ms Mirabella claimed, because it came well after the election was over and would not garner the same attention as the original article.

Ms Mirabella, who recently took up a job working for mining magnate Gina Rinehart, was sought for comment. 

Ross McPherson, from the McPherson Media Group, which owns the Benalla Ensign, confirmed the newspaper had received the writ but declined to comment further.