The implications, particularly for small, independent media outlets – such as this masthead – can not be understated. We explain why today’s finding is important for journalism, using our investigative reports on the Father Bob Maguire saga to explain why.
In December 2022, we came into contact with several sources close to Father Robert ‘Bob’ Maguire asking for help “from the MSM [mainstream media].”
Whether it be Ben Roberts-Smith’s matters, or what this masthead reported about Father Bob and his removal from the Father Bob Maguire Foundation, the Federal Court upheld the principles of journalism.
Sources in our Father Bob investigations were informed of the risks involved and as a small, independent publisher the risk of civil action was highly probable, “I’d be better off connecting you to journalists at an MSM outlet,” VicNews editor Ashley Geelan told sources.
“Beyond my pay grade,” they were told.
Sources, some of which were close friends of Father Bob for over 25 years, including nurses, a paramedic, and a doctor, among others, told us information that did not match media statements released by the Foundation’s board.
Father Bob confirmed the source’s information was accurate and true.
This masthead and sources were threatened with civil defamation action by the board and PR firm, acting on behalf of two Foundation board members. It is unknown which two board members.
Today’s judgement in the Federal Court upheld that, provided journalists (and/or the media outlets they work or file for) could prove “substantial truth” or “contextual truth” of allegations then one hasn’t been defamed.
In relation to our investigation into what really happened to Father Bob – which is still not completely known – we spoke to many sources, including the night before he passed, Father Bob.
- He confirmed the information provided by our sources was accurate and true. Father Bob referred to Foundation board members as “going behind his back” to obtain a Guardianship order and remove him as chair of his Foundation as “treacherous frenemies.” Members of the foundation’s board and VCAT-appointed guardian, Peta Knights, refused to answer questions despite several requests;
- Following a legal letter, VicNews no longer contacted the Board or PR firm they employed, Michelson Alexander;
- If the board or Knights were to take civil action claiming ‘defamation’ this masthead would now argue our defence based on today’s Federal Court judgement by Justice Anthony Besanko;
- Sources were confirmed by Father Bob himself to be providing this masthead with accurate, first-hand accounts and other relevant information that was then passed to senior journalists at major outlets;
- Information provided by our sources was checked, directly with Father Bob via telephone. It was checked again – and legally checked – by senior journalists at some major Melbourne media outlets;
- VCAT upheld the ‘public interest’ test in a hearing that Herald Sun journalist, Brooke Grebert-Craig and this masthead’s owner, Ashley Geelan sought. In a rare occurrence – according to former Age investigative journalist Peter Gregory – VCAT ordered documents relating to the Power of Attorney and Guardianship orders be released to the media – including this masthead – in the public interest;
- Sources used in our reporting could be required to testify in a civil trial that the information they provided was true and correct to the best of their knowledge;
- The PR firm Michelson Alexander claimed they wouldn’t answer this masthead’s questions but would answer them if requested by a “real journalist,” but they did not answer “real journalist’s” questions either;
No evidence provided to this masthead or direct conversations with Father Bob suggests he was suffering from dementia.
Given today’s Federal Court decision, the foundation would have to prove that what this masthead reported wasn’t based on facts and sources implying the late Father Bob himself was lying.
Support and counselling for Australian veterans and their families is available 24 hours a day from Open Arms on 1800 011 046 or openarms.gov.au and Safe Zone Support on 1800 142 072.
Michelson Alexander is no longer contracted by the Father Bob Maguire Foundation.