Hockey left with no regrets but huge bill in ‘Treasurer for Sale’ case

Treasurer Joe Hockey has been left with a huge bill in his defamation case against Fairfax Media. Joel Carrett/AAP

Treasurer Joe Hockey has declared he does not regret suing Fairfax for defamation, despite being hundreds of thousands of dollars out of pocket after the Federal Court on Wednesday ordered that the media company pay only 15% of his legal costs.

Hockey had sought that Fairax pay almost all his costs in the case he brought over its “Treasurer for Sale” articles, which said Hockey was offering privileged access to a select group including businesspeople and lobbyists in return for donations to the Liberal Party through a secretive fundraising body.

But in a mixed result for both sides on costs, Fairfax failed in its bid for Hockey to pay 60% of its legal bills.

In June, Hockey was awarded A$200,000 for two Age tweets and a Sydney Morning Herald poster. But the articles themselves, including the “Treasurer for Sale” heading when in context, were not found to be defamatory.

Releasing his decision on costs on Wednesday, Justice Richard White also rejected Hockey’s submission for injunctions stopping republication of imputations made against him.

In a statement late on Wednesday, Hockey launched a bitter attack on Fairfax.

“After nearly twenty years in public life I took this action to stand up to malicious people intent on vilifying Australians who choose to serve in public office to make their country a better place,” Hockey said.

“I do not regret taking this action.

"The Federal Court has found that the Sydney Morning Herald and The Age defamed me. The Federal Court has found that Fairfax Media acted with malice through the actions of their Editor-in-Chief, Darren Goodsir.

"This is an unprecedented finding by a court against an Editor-in-Chief of a major Australian newspaper.

"The Federal Court dismissed Fairfax Media’s defence and awarded me damages. The Federal Court dismissed Fairfax Media’s claim for me to pay the majority of their legal fees.

"The Federal Court instead ordered Fairfax Media to pay part of my legal costs.

"Whilst the cost of this action has been considerable for me, my family and friends, it has been far greater for Fairfax Media.

"They are clearly not ‘Independent. Always’” - a reference to how the company promotes its papers.

In Wednesday’s decision, Justice White said: “It is plain that Mr Hockey is not entitled to his costs in full against the SMH and The Age as in those proceedings he failed on the matters which were the real core of his claim. Had Mr Hockey sued only on the SMH poster and the two tweets of The Age , the proceedings would have been much more confined and, possibly, may not have involved a trial at all. Mr Hockey failed on a number of legal and factual issues in the trial”.

How much Hockey and Fairfax each spent on the case is not known. But it is known that Hockey is left well short after the $200,000 awarded to him and the Fairfax contribution. The bills will be all his – sources said the Liberal Party is not contributing.

Rejecting the arguments for injunctions on the republication of imputations, Justice White pointed, among his reasons, to issues of principle.

The injunctions sought by Hockey would extend to publications about his future conduct, Justice White said. Hockey continued to be a member of parliament and the holder of an important office, and there was thus likely to be continuing public interest in his conduct in discharging his duties, he said. There was a public interest in free speech and receiving information on government and political matters.

Finally, it was undesirable for courts to make themselves a gateway to be negotiated before material was published, Justice White said.

Listen to the latest Politics with Michelle Grattan, with Australian Institute director Ben Oquist, here or on iTunes.

Facts matter. Your tax-deductible donation helps deliver fact-based journalism.