‘The toughest fight of our careers’: Journalists speak after defamation win
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Investigative journalists Nick McKenzie and Chris Masters say they feel vindicated after a Federal Court judge found decorated soldier Ben Roberts-Smith murdered and assaulted unarmed prisoners while deployed in Afghanistan.
The pair spoke to the media outside the court after the historic judgment was handed down on Thursday afternoon, flanked by Nine publishing executives James Chessell and Tory Maguire, and their legal team.
Justice Anthony Besanko found The Age, The Sydney Morning Herald and the Canberra Times had proven Roberts-Smith was a war criminal who had also bullied a fellow soldier.
Below is a transcript of what McKenzie, Masters and Chessell had to say after their historic victory in the multimillion-dollar defamation suit.
We welcome the Federal Court’s judgment that investigations by The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald were correct in their reporting that Ben Roberts-Smith committed war crimes.
The findings by Justice Anthony Besanko today that Roberts-Smith participated in the execution of Afghans confirms our reports that the Victoria Cross recipient breached the Geneva Convention, and is a critical step towards justice for the families of the murder victims.
The judgment is a vindication for journalists Nick McKenzie and Chris Masters, who began reporting this difficult and complicated story more than seven years ago.
It is a vindication for the many people in our newsrooms and our organisation who supported this really important public interest journalism. And most importantly, it is a vindication for the brave soldiers of the SAS, who served their country with distinction, and then had the courage to speak the truth about what happened in Afghanistan.
Nick and Chris painstakingly pieced together these investigations and today’s judgment exemplifies how the exhaustive public interest journalism of The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald serves our community and serves our country.
The series of stories at the centre of this trial will have a lasting impact on the Australian Defence Force and how our soldiers conduct themselves in Afghanistan.
It’s important to remember that while today is a pivotal moment in this story, and we are very pleased with the result. The story goes on beyond this judgment.
We will continue to hold people involved in war crimes to account. The responsibility for these atrocities does not end with Ben Roberts-Smith. Publishing a story of this magnitude is never easy, but high quality investigative journalism is vital to a thriving democracy.
Nine’s unequivocal backing of this reporting and our defence of it is a clear demonstration of its commitment to quality journalism.
Thank you very much. Thank you to James [Chessell] as well. I think it was a great call back in June 2018 to run that story. I think it will go down in the history of the news business as one of the great calls. It was wonderful to be supported by Nine.
I have a great deal of gratitude to the judge. This was a very difficult case. You often say in defamation that there are a few winners. I’m glad to say I’m not standing here as a loser, but I don’t think it is true that anybody comes out of a matter like this feeling exalted and triumphant.
I’m so grateful to our lawyers. In my time I’ve seen great teams come together, and what was wonderful about this was the coalition of such a great team led by Nick Owens. Terrific work by Chris Mitchell and Peter Bartlett, and also Dean Levitan.
I think it’s a relief for the media, frankly. We’re so often on our knees, it often feels so hard to even do ordinary work, let alone work as difficult as this. So this judgment comes as a great relief.
And my final words go to those soldiers. I don’t want people to think of this as a bad day for Australian soldiers. I think of those soldiers who not only had physical courage, but also moral courage. Nick [McKenzie] and I know them well, we’ve spent a lot of time with them.
I’m proud that they’re out there, that as journalists, we can meet Australian people who are prepared to tell a difficult truth and stand up to it. It was 110 days of them being punished in the witness box and they did so wonderfully well. I’m so grateful to all of them. Thank you.
I’d just like to say, today is the day of justice. It’s a day of justice for those brave men of the SAS who stood up and told the truth about who Ben Roberts-Smith is: a war criminal, a bully and a liar. Australia should be proud of those men in the SAS. They are the majority in the SAS, and they stood up for what was right, and they have been vindicated.
Today is the day of some small justice for the Afghan victims of Ben Roberts-Smith. Ali Jan was the man kicked off the cliff. Ali Jan was a father. Ali Jan was a husband. He has children who no longer have a father. He has a wife who no longer has a husband. He was kicked off a cliff by Ben Roberts-Smith, and he was murdered with Ben Roberts-Smith’s participation. There’s some small justice for him.
There’s justice for the Afghan villagers who stood up in court. Like the SAS soldiers who implicated Ben Roberts-Smith in war crimes, the Afghan villagers who stood up in court on Ben Robert-Smith’s instructions were mocked, belittled by Ben Roberts-Smith’s counsel.
They, too, have been found to have spoken the truth. Finally, a massive thank you to Chris [Masters], for believing in investigative journalism, for standing beside me in the toughest fight of our journalistic careers.
We couldn’t have done it without each other. We couldn’t have done it without our brave colleagues in the newsrooms. We couldn’t have done it without our editors. And we couldn’t have done this without the best legal team in the country. So one word: justice.
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