Sophie Mirabella has been awarded $175,000 in compensation for what a judge has ruled was a damage in reputation caused by a defamatory Benalla Ensign article.
In handing down his verdict at Melbourne County Court yesterday, Judge Michael Macnamara said the Ensign acted with “recklessness” in publishing the story without seeking a response from Mrs Mirabella.
The April 2016 article claimed she pushed Indi MP Cathy McGowan at an event at a Benalla nursing home, an allegation which she denied.
The defence claimed during the trial at Wangaratta that the push was “substantially true” because Mrs Mirabella was said to push Aged Care Minister Ken Wyatt, not Ms McGowan.
But Judge Michael Macnamara found the argument to be “a point of aggravation” and said the Ensign’s apology, printed six months after the incident, came too late.
“Her public image as the ‘pusher’ had already solidified and had become part of the general folklore,” he said.
“This defamation has caused significant hurt to Mrs Mirabella’s reputation.”
Judge Macnamara said Mrs Mirabella’s request for between $300,000 and the cap of $389,500 in damages was too high and the argument from the Ensign’s lawyers for less than $100,000 was “plainly too low”.
He agreed with Ensign barrister David Gilbertson’s argument about the defamatory story “not being particularly serious” compared to a criminal matter of battery or other physical violence, but noted it was still damaging for Mrs Mirabella.
“This defamation is not as serious as the unjustified allegation of wife beating against the hypothetical politician; but it is more than merely trivial,” he said.
Speaking outside court yesterday, Mrs Mirabella said she was pleased with the judge’s sensible decision.
“Whether you’re a politician or a member of the public, you should not be subjected to media behaviour that I was subjected to … Perhaps this will be a sober lesson to them regarding the manner in which they go about collecting information for their stories,” she said.
“I’ve received a lot of support from people, coming from a lot of different quarters who were appalled at how the allegation really turned out and what happened, so I’m really grateful to all those people.”
Claim of collusion rejected by judge
Claims of attempted collusion by Sophie Mirabella to win the defamation case have been dismissed.
Aged Care Minister Ken Wyatt gave evidence that Mrs Mirabella told him “we’ve got to get our evidence right”.
Judge Michael Macnamara accepted the statement as truth, but not the assumption the minister was being asked to change his evidence.
He said it was “a most pejorative construction on what was said” because refreshing a witness’s memory of the truth was usual practice.
“In the circumstances described, I am not satisfied that Mrs Mirabella has shown to have engaged in disreputable conduct,” he said.
“I have preferred Mr Wyatt’s recollection of these events to Mrs Mirabella’s.
“That preference is an example of a legitimate difference in recollection rather than any attempt on the part of Mrs Mirabella to mislead.”