The Federal Court has ordered Fairfax Media to pay 15 per cent of Australian Treasurer Joe Hockey’s legal costs following a partial victory for Mr Hockey in a defamation action he had brought against the company.
The court awarded $200,000 in damages to Mr Hockey after it found the words “Treasurer for sale” had defamed Mr Hockey when they appeared on newsagent posters produced by The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age and in two separate Age tweets.
Justice Richard White found, however, that the words were not defamatory when used in a headline run with a front page investigative report in The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age, in a partial win for Fairfax. Justice White said when published with the context of the story, “ordinary, reasonable readers” were unlikely to have believed that Mr Hockey was acting corruptly.
The distribution of costs reflects that decision, as Mr Hockey is left to pay the bulk of his costs – a sum that has the potential to be significantly greater than the $200,000 awarded in damages.
In awarding costs yesterday, Justice White agreed with the contention by Fairfax that the articles were “the real core” of the legal action.
The story associated with the headline concerned allegations Mr Hockey was offering lobbyists and wealthy businessmen personal access in return for political donations.
Justice White said Mr Hockey had failed altogether in his case against The Canberra Times which ran the same report only with a different headline, and had “only partial success” in his case against the Herald and The Age.
“It is obvious in those circumstances that Mr Hockey is not entitled to the whole of his costs,” he said.
A spokesperson for Fairfax Media said: “The costs judgment is a fair reflection of the outcome of the proceedings where Mr Hockey failed on all of the matters which were the real core of his claim.”
Justice White also rejected an application by Mr Hockey for a permanent injunction to prevent Fairfax from repeating the imputation that he had acted corruptly. He said by promptly taking down the offending tweets, The Age had shown its “respect for court orders and a willingness to act responsibly”.
The judgement last month was seen as warning to publishers that greater care needed to be taken to ensure social media posts were consistent with defamation law.