Crikey used a legal threat from Lachlan Murdoch to drive subscriptions, a statement of claim from the co-chairman of News Corporation alleges.
Murdoch has launched proceedings for defamation against the independent news site over an article published in June that named the Murdoch family as an “unindicted co-conspirator” in the 6 January Capitol riots.
Murdoch is seeking aggravated damages and an injunction to prevent Crikey republishing the article and its imputations.
Lawyers for Murdoch say the article falsely alleged, among other imputations, that Murdoch “illegally conspired with Trump to overturn the presidential election result” and “knowingly entered into a criminal conspiracy with Donald Trump and a large number of Fox News commentators to overturn the 2020 election result”.
The lawsuit was filed in Australia’s federal court late on Tuesday, a day after Crikey bought a full-page ad in the New York Times inviting Murdoch to sue them over the alleged defamation.
The statement of claim alleges that the placement of the NYT advertisement was “seeking to humiliate” Murdoch, the executive chairman and chief executive of Fox Corporation.
Murdoch began proceedings to sue Crikey after the website republished the article on 15 August, after initially taking it offline when the editor received a concerns notice on 30 June.
This week Crikey published all the legal correspondence between lawyers for both parties which detail why Crikey refused to remove the article and apologise, and what offers to settle have been made.
The 40-page writ alleges that someone from Private Media contacted the SMH “seeking to publicise that Murdoch had complained about its content” and an article was published in the Nine masthead on 14 August which made public the legal threat.
“Private Media has continued to use the SMH article and their (false) allegations about Murdoch intimidating them, to promote the article and the Crikey website in order to increase its number of subscribers for financial gain,” the writ alleges.
Murdoch is seeking damages because through the publication and republication of the article “Murdoch has been gravely injured in his character, his personal reputation and his professional reputation as a business person and company director, and has suffered and will continue to suffer substantial hurt, distress and embarrassment.”
Murdoch through his lawyers has accused Private Media of: “Falsely suggesting that Murdoch was being unreasonable in his conduct towards them to settle the dispute, in circumstances where he repeatedly told them that an apology was the only further step that needed to occur for the matter to resolve.”
In the document, barrister Sue Chrysanthou SC and solicitor John Churchill allege Private Media has a “disingenuous scheme, contrived on or about 25 July to improperly use the offer to make amends to conduct a campaign of self promotion”.
The claim references all the articles, the open letter, tweets and Facebook posts from Private Media executives and journalists, including those by political editor Bernard Keane who wrote the article, which have been published. Keane is the second respondent in the suit.
According to the documents filed in the federal court, Murdoch has complained four times in five years about articles published by Private Media which include: 1,120 articles about “Murdoch”; 126 articles about “Lachlan Murdoch” and 390 articles about Fox News. Private Media “has never attempted to speak to Murdoch before any publication”.
“The allegation that Murdoch ‘turned nuclear over a legitimate piece of journalism’ by ‘sending a series of threatening letters’, when all he did was comply with the mandatory concerns notice process under the act,” was also defamatory the writ says.
In response to the original complaint, Crikey initially agreed to remove the piece from its website and deleted a related tweet and Facebook post – but has since reinstated the article online.
Crikey offered to not republish the article, pay Murdoch’s reasonable legal fees and publish an “editorial statement” clarifying its position and arguing the article did not convey the imputations alleged by Murdoch.
The offer was rejected by lawyers for Murdoch who also said Murdoch “does wish to resolve the matter with Crikey as he has successfully done so in the past … the only issue between the parties is the provision of a genuine apology”.
The editor-in-chief of Crikey, Peter Fray, who is the third respondent in the suit, said in a statement on Tuesday: “Crikey stands by its story and we look forward to defending our independent public interest journalism in court against the considerable resources of Lachlan Murdoch.
“We are determined to fight for the integrity and importance of diverse independent media in Australian democracy,” Fray said.
“We welcome the chance to test what an honest, open and public debate actually means for free speech in Australia.”