The marathon defamation trial of war veteran Ben Roberts-Smith has concluded after his lawyer told a Sydney court he was the victim of a “war of words” by bitter, jealous ex-colleagues who fed lies to journalists.
- The trial started in June 2021 but there was a six-month COVID break
- Barrister Arthur Moses said false stories were fed to journalists out of jealousy
- Justice Anthony Besanko is likely to take months to deliver a verdict
Mr Roberts-Smith sued The Age, The Sydney Morning Herald, The Canberra Times and three journalists in the Federal Court over a series of articles published four years ago.
He claims he was falsely portrayed as a war criminal, a bully to SAS colleagues and a perpetrator of domestic violence, while publisher Nine Entertainment defended the stories as true.
The trial lasted 13 months, including a six-month break because of the COVID-19 lockdown.
On the final day of closing submissions, barrister Arthur Moses SC repeated his opening arguments that the case was about corrosive jealousy and cowardice by some who made allegations “in the dark.”
“It is crystal clear, we say, on the evidence, that the award of the Victoria Cross to Mr Roberts-Smith for his acts of bravery during the battle of Tizak in Afghanistan led to a war of words against him by persons who were jealous and bitter over his receipt of that award,” Mr Moses said.
The barrister said former SAS colleagues, including a soldier known as Person 7, were motivated by “professional jealousy” as they embarked on a “campaign of rumor and innuendo”.
I have argued they pushed false stories to journalists Nick McKenzie and Chris Masters, who are both respondents, who in turn “jumped on the rumors like salmon jumping on a hook and published them as fact when they were fiction”.
“It is unfortunate that having had to confront danger and risk his life in Afghanistan being a target of the Taliban, that Mr Roberts-Smith and other brave members of the Australian Defense Force have returned home to become targets by some in the media who have carelessly published allegations of war crimes as fact, without knowing all the facts or what impact the making of such allegations would have on the reputation of the person or that they have suffered trauma.”
Mr Moses also criticized Nine for persisting in running stories about Mr Roberts-Smith throughout the proceedings, which “trampled on his reputation and his right to the presumption of innocence”.
“They were done with callous disregard for the impact it would have on him and his family all in the search, it would seem, not for the truth but journalistic glory,” Mr Moses said.
“There was nothing noble or appropriate about the conduct of those who fed lies and rumors to them.”
Mr Moses argued key witnesses who testified about missions central to the case were exposed as “perjurers”.
He also rejected the suggestion there had been “collusion” by Mr Roberts-Smith and some of his SAS witnesses, saying that allegation was largely “handed” to Nine by the veteran’s ex-wife, Emma Roberts, who sought to turn family holidays into a narrative to assist Nine.
Barrister Nicholas Owens SC previously told the court that Mr Roberts-Smith had shown himself “prepared to lie under oath”, leading to serious damage to his credit as a witness.
He highlighted that Mr Roberts-Smith’s witnesses were “closely-associated”, including by the ties of friendship and business, who each had motives to lie.
Justice Anthony Besanko reserved his decision, which is now likely to be months away.