Lachlan Murdoch has been granted leave to expand his defamation case against Crikey, with the federal court agreeing to add the Private Media chairman, Eric Beecher, and its chief executive, Will Hayward, as respondents.
The Fox Corporation CEO launched defamation proceedings against the independent news site last year over an article published in June that named the Murdoch family as an “unindicted co-conspirator” in the US Capitol attack. After a concerns notice from Murdoch, Crikey took the article down but it was reinstated on 15 August.
In Murdoch’s original claim, Private Media, Crikey’s political editor, Bernard Keane, and editor-in-chief, Peter Fray, were the only respondents and the reposted article was not considered a separate article.
But the court ruled on Monday that the News Corp executive chairman can amend his statement of claim and characterise the original Crikey article and the reposted article as separate publications and sue over both.
Justice Michael Wigney ruled in Murdoch’s favour, although he warned it would significantly delay the trial – from March to October – and lengthen it from nine days to three weeks.
Murdoch’s lawyers argued that from about July last year Private Media, Fray, Beecher and Hayward “contrived a scheme to improperly use the complaint by Murdoch about the article to generate subscriptions to Crikey and thus income to Private Media under the guise of defending public interest journalism”.
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Barrister Sue Chrysanthou SC said during the process of discovery, in which parties in civil cases hand over relevant documents, Private Media had revealed it had a public relations strategy designed to maximise publicity over the so-called “David and Goliath” battle between Crikey and Murdoch.
Crikey had used the dispute as a subscription driver and had raised a “windfall” of $500,000 for 5,000 new subscriptions in the month of August after publishing the legal letters from Murdoch, Chrysanthou said.
Private Media’s campaign included the reposting of the article complained of, stories about the article and a social media and newspaper advertising campaign including an open letter in the New York Times, designed to humiliate Murdoch, Chrysanthou said.
Private Media barrister Michael Hodge KC argued Murdoch should not be allowed to start a new course of action five months after defamation proceedings began and it would add significant time and cost to the trial.
He refuted the suggestion that advice from a public relations firm, Populares, was “somehow guiding” Crikey and Private Media’s actions as they awaited whether Murdoch would sue.
In its defence, Private Media has said the article did not suggest the Murdochs were guilty of criminal conspiracy.
“No one would read the words literally as suggesting that the Murdochs were guilty of criminal conspiracy or treason under US law,” the defence said.
Murdoch has argued that he 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”.
“We’ve been open all along about the principles we’re standing up for,” Hayward said. “We feel just as strongly about those principles and about free speech as we did when this started. This is what we do at Crikey, and we look forward to defending our actions in court.”