News Corp co-chairman Lachlan Murdoch opened his defamation battle against small Australian news outlet Crikey at a Sydney court on Friday, with the scrappy website arguing it has the right to criticise the “rich and powerful”.
Rupert Murdoch’s eldest son launched proceedings in August, over an opinion piece that linked his family’s media empire to the 2021 storming of the US Capitol.
His lawyers have claimed their client was defamed more than a dozen times by the piece, which accused “the Murdochs and their slew of poisonous Fox News commentators” of being “unindicted co-conspirators” in the Capitol riot.
The fight between the media scion and the often pugilistic publisher over the piece made international headlines last month when Crikey took out an advertisement in The New York Times inviting Murdoch to sue.
It said it wanted to “test this important issue of freedom of public interest journalism in a courtroom”.
Murdoch, who is also chief executive of media behemoth Fox Corporation, which owns Fox News, filed his suit the next day.
– ‘Defamation capital’ –
Defamation expert David Rolph, a law professor at the University of Sydney, told AFP that Murdoch’s case against Crikey would be the first real test of attempts to reform Australia’s notoriously tough defamation laws.
The country has in recent years gained a reputation as “the defamation capital of the world” after a spate of lawsuits launched by high-profile figures, including actors and politicians.
Crikey’s defence, filed with the federal court, denied it defamed Murdoch and flagged it would lean on two new defences created by the recent reforms.
“One is a serious harm threshold… the plaintiff now has to prove that they not only suffered some harm to reputation, but that it was serious harm to reputation,” Rolph said.
Crikey will also seek to argue that the opinion piece, by writer Bernard Keane, was in the public interest.
“I suppose the difficulty here is that defence is entirely untested. This will be a test case of that,” Rolph said.
He added that it was “interesting that the approach to this has been, I think, on both sides, to take a fairly firm stand and to raise the stakes”.
– Public interest fight –
Crikey has framed the legal fight as a David-versus-Goliath battle, launching a GoFundMe campaign to back its defence.
Former Australian prime minister Malcolm Turnbull donated Aus$5,000 (US$3,300) to the fundraiser, commenting that “Lachlan Murdoch owns boats that are worth more than Crikey”.
In a statement issued Thursday, Crikey chief executive Will Hayward said that “there is an issue of fundamental public importance at stake, and that is why we are defending the case brought against our company and our journalists”.
He added: “We think it is important in an open, well-functioning society that the rich and powerful can be critiqued”.
While Murdoch has stayed quiet since launching the case, his statement of claim accused Crikey of using the legal saga to drive subscriptions.