An article headlined “Treasurer for sale” that sparked defamation action by Joe Hockey was in the public interest, the Fairfax journalist who wrote it has told a court.
The Federal Court is examining whether Mr Hockey’s reputation was damaged by a series of reports last year, including the article “Treasurer for sale”.
The reports, published in newspapers including The Sydney Morning Herald (SMH) and The Age, and online, related to Mr Hockey’s involvement with Liberal Party fundraising group the North Sydney Forum (NSF).
SMH state political editor Sean Nicholls told the court he believed the story was in the public interest because there was “significant public debate about donations being tied to access to politicians”.
He said he sent an email to Mr Hockey on Friday, May 2 requesting information about the Treasurer’s involvement in business networking and NSF.
Mr Nicholls asked for a response by Sunday, May 4 and the story was published the following day.
“My intention was to give Mr Hockey a very reasonable time to answer questions,” he said.
Mr Hockey’s lawyer, Bruce McClintock SC, asked Mr Nicholls why his email to the Treasurer’s office before publication did not ask Mr Hockey directly why he was providing “privileged access” to the NSF “in return for fees worth tens of thousands of dollars”.
“There’s no need to say that,” Mr Nicholls said.
“It would have been blindingly obvious given the type of political experience Mr Hockey has or indeed to the media professionals in his office that that was the type of article being prepared.”
Mr Nicholls said he had tried to “do the right thing by the Treasurer” by going directly to his office.
The Treasurer said on Tuesday that he was too busy preparing for his first budget to respond to Mr Nicholls’s email.
The court heard Mr Nicholls was not responsible for the story’s headline, “Treasurer for sale”.
“I had no knowledge of the headline, Mr McClintock, until I saw it published in the newspaper on the Monday,” he said.
However, Mr Nicholls said he regarded it as a fair summary of the words he had written.
“Very much so,” he said.
The court heard the timing of the upcoming federal budget was discussed “quite heavily” on the telephone at Fairfax by Mr Nicholls and editors of SMH and The Age, Darren Goodsir and Andrew Holden, when deciding when to publish the story.
Mr Nicholls said he did not have a view about whether Mr Hockey’s association with the NSF was wrong.
“There was nothing illegal about what was being undertaken,” he said.
But he said the issues of probity and transparency were important.
“That is the system under which we operate at the present time,” he said.
“The Sydney Morning Herald has long been interested in whether this process should be re-visited in law.”
Earlier, Mr Hockey told the court he viewed the report as defamatory because it suggested his influence could be bought by members of the NSF, who pay up to $22,000 a year for access to events attended by Mr Hockey and others.
Mr Hockey said his office received no money from the NSF.
‘I want to have this nailed to the cross’
The court that heard Mr Goodsir sent an email to Mr Nicholls in March 2014.
It said: “Given what Andrew and I endured last week with Hockey, I want to have this nailed to the cross in more ways than one.”
Mr Nicholls: “He wanted any article produced from this research to be meticulous. He wanted every fact to be nailed down.”
Bruce McClintock SC: “Mr Goodsir was suggesting you crucify my client.”
Sean Nicholls: “No, that’s not what I took from that at all.”
The court heard Mr Nicholls was told to “keep digging” and keep the exclusive story “as tight as a drum”.
Mr Nicholls said: “This was an editor in chief (Mr Goodsir) trying to gee up his troops. Mr Goodsir was very concerned that anything we publish be absolutely watertight in a factual sense.”
Mr Nicholls added that he viewed the Treasurer’s phone call to his editor at 2.30am the previous week requesting an apology over a different matter, as “an overreaction on the part of the Treasurer”.
The court heard Mr Goodsir wrote to Mr Nicholls saying: “I’ll be back on Monday 28 and want to be in a spot to launch our dirt on Hockey then. This one ‘aint over yet.”