VC winner’s war crimes defamation judgement

A Federal Court judge will today hand down findings in a defamation case in which Victoria Cross winner Ben Roberts-Smith was accused of war crimes in Afghanistan.

Jun 01, 2023, updated Jun 01, 2023
Photo: AAP/Tracey Nearmy

Photo: AAP/Tracey Nearmy

Roberts-Smith, 43, sued The Age, The Sydney Morning Herald and The Canberra Times for defamation over reports in 2018 claiming he committed war crimes in Afghanistan, and acts of bullying and domestic violence.

The trial spanned more than a year when witness after witness was called to either back up the reports or stand by the Victoria Cross recipient.

Federal Court Justice Anthony Besanko has considered all the evidence over the last 11 months and will hand down his findings on Thursday afternoon.

The judge will decide the truth or otherwise behind the various allegations made against Roberts-Smith and his ruling may not be a complete win for the war veteran or the news companies he has sued.

Footage aired by the Nine Network on Wednesday showed Roberts-Smith in Bali ahead of the defamation battle decision.

A single finding against Roberts-Smith could still deal a massive blow to his reputation.

The legal bill for the media firms could also be hefty if they lose with lawyers estimated to have roped in more than $25 million for running and defending the case.

The ex-SAS corporal has denied all the allegations and is seeking damages for harm which allegedly led to more than 10 years of lost income, including a partnership with consulting firm PwC and lucrative public speaking roles.

Roberts-Smith says former and still-serving elite soldiers who spoke to journalists were liars who started rumours after becoming jealous of his VC.

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The media companies have stood by their reporting, claiming their articles were true.

These allegations include that Roberts-Smith executed a man with a prosthetic leg by firing a machine gun into his back, making a young recruit shoot a prisoner to “blood the rookie”, and kicking an unarmed, handcuffed man off a cliff into a river bed.

Whoever comes out on top after such a hotly contested legal dispute, Thursday’s judgment may be appealed by the losing side considering the high stakes and high costs for each party.

In November 2020, a report into alleged war crimes by special forces in Afghanistan was released finding credible evidence that 39 civilians and prisoners were unlawfully killed by Australian troops while two others were subject to cruelty from 2007 to 2013.

Two years later, more than 40 alleged offences were being investigated.

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-with AAP

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