Australia’s most decorated soldier loses multiple defamation claims against media who alleged war crimes

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Brisbane, Australia (CNN) — Three Australian newspapers are claiming a major win in a high-stakes defamation case brought against them by the country’s most decorated soldier who claimed they had damaged his reputation by publishing claims of alleged war crimes in Afghanistan.

The ruling, delivered by Federal Court Justice Anthony Besanko on Thursday, brings a dramatic end to a long-running trial and delivers another blow to the reputation of the nation’s military, already damaged by revelations the emerged during 100 days of testimony.

Besanko found Thursday that the papers established substantial truth in a number of claims, but not all of them. In some cases, he found the papers established contextual truth, which is also a defense under Australia’s Defamation Act. In others, he found that the papers had not established the truth.

On paper the result was mixed, but the finding of truth in the majority cases batters the reputation of Ben Roberts-Smith, previously lauded for his bravery and leadership.

The Age, The Sydney Morning Herald, and The Canberra Times had relied on a truth defense for a series of articles published in 2018 that painted the elite soldier as a bully and murderer who lied to protect his reputation.

The decision in favor of the papers is being celebrated by supporters of press freedom, who say it will harden the resolve of media companies to pursue high-cost investigative cases in a country with tough defamation laws.

Roberts-Smith, a former SAS soldier, wasn’t in court to hear the verdict. The day before the ruling, local media published photos of him beside a pool in Bali, Indonesia.

Despite his absence, a large media contingent gathered at the Federal Court in Sydney to hear the verdict, which was broadcast from the court and aired live on national television.

The journalists behind the stories – Nick McKenzie and Chris Masters – are multi award-winning investigative reporters known for their rigorous attention to detail. After the ruling, McKenzie tweeted one word: “Justice”.

In his closing remarks, barrister Arthur Moses SC, for Roberts-Smith, had accused them of jumping on rumors “like salmon jumping on a hook and published them as fact when they were fiction.”

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