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Murdoch targets Crikey ‘guiding minds’ in Trump-related defamation action

UPDATED | The chairman and CEO of the Australian company that publishes Crikey have been dragged into a high-profile defamation suit by Lachlan Murdoch who argues they interfered with their journalists.

Lachlan Murdoch (left) with father Rupert and brother James. Photo: EPA/FACUNDO ARRIZABALAGA

Lachlan Murdoch (left) with father Rupert and brother James. Photo: EPA/FACUNDO ARRIZABALAGA

On Monday, Federal Court Justice Michael Wigney allowed the Fox Corporation CEO to expand his case against Crikey publisher Private Media by also suing chairman Eric Beecher and CEO Will Hayward.

Murdoch’s barrister Sue Chrysanthou SC argued the case could be amended to include Beecher and Hayward as the “guiding minds” of Crikey.

When the lawsuit was initially filed in August last year, Murdoch did not contemplate that the two Crikey heads would interfere as much as they did in the editorial process, Chrysanthou said.

“It did not enter our minds that the suits, the businessmen, the non-journalists, would have been part of that editorial decision-making. And in this case, we now allege not just part of it, but the people who were behind it,” she told Justice Michael Wigney.

The son of Rupert Murdoch has sued the organisation behind the Crikey masthead over an allegedly defamatory June 29 opinion piece by political editor Bernard Keane, that was taken down and then posted back online on August 15.

Lachlan Murdoch alleges the article titled “Trump is a confirmed unhinged traitor. And Murdoch is his unindicted co-conspirator” conveyed a meaning that he illegally conspired with former president Donald Trump to “incite a mob with murderous intent to march on the Capitol” in Washington DC on January 6, 2021.

Crikey denies the article is defamatory and has raised a public interest defence.

Originally suing over the August 15 reposting merely for damages claimed from Private Media, the media heir can now consider this a separate publication in a campaign planned by Hayward and Beecher.

“Beecher and Hayward, we have alleged, are the guiding mind of Private Media when it came to the reposting. That’s what we allege,” Chrysanthou said.

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The reposting of the article was not in response to media speculation about the spat with Murdoch but was instead a commercial decision that boosted Crikey’s subscribers by 5000 people or 25 per cent, the court heard.

Through these added subscriptions, the publisher gained around $500,000 with a further $500,000 brought in through a GoFundMe campaign, Justice Wigney was told.

Private Media profited in this way despite having defamation insurance to protect from any damages awarded against it, Chysanthou said.

Murdoch was also allowed to amend other parts of his case over the Crikey article, including that he is owed aggravated damages over an allegedly disingenuous offer to make amends given weeks before the republication.

“The offer to make amends was drafted and designed to escalate and aggravate the dispute, not to settle the dispute, by deliberate design,” Chrysanthou told the court.

“If my client had accepted that offer to make amends, we will say Your Honour should infer that they still intended to harass and further defame him in this way.”

Private Media’s barrister Michael Hodge KC opposed the amendments, saying that Murdoch had made a deliberate forensic choice not to sue on the reposted article as its own publication when he filed the lawsuit in August.

No explanation had been made about why the Fox CEO changed his mind and the effect of the changes would prejudice his clients who were already under the stress and anxiety of litigation, Hodge said.

In allowing the amendments, Justice Wigney vacated trial dates already set in place in March. A new three-week trial has been scheduled to commence on October 9.

The matter will next come before the court on Thursday.

-AAP

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