Decorated war veteran Ben Roberts-Smith has lost $475,000 in income after newspapers reported allegations of war crimes, bullying and domestic violence against him, a Sydney court has heard.
Mr Roberts-Smith’s barrister, Bruce McClintock SC, told his Federal Court on Tuesday that defamation trial articles published by Nine Entertainment Co “smashed and destroyed his reputation”.
The articles, published in 2018, outlined allegations including involvement in up to six unlawful killings while on deployment in Afghanistan, along with a later allegation he punched a woman, with whom he was having an affair, in the face in a Canberra hotel room.
Mr Roberts-Smith denies the allegations.
“These are not trivial attacks, these are allegations of murder and war crimes and there really can be nothing more serious than they are,” Mr McClintock told the hearing in Sydney on Tuesday.
“Equally, the allegation of domestic violence in itself is extremely serious”.
Mr McClintock said before the publication of the reports, his client was earning $320,000 each year through public speaking engagements.
But those offers “evaporated” after the domestic violence allegations were published.
Mr McClintock said he would call evidence from an expert accountant who has estimated Mr Roberts-Smith’s total loss of income from public speaking, as of the end of 2020, to be $475,000.
The accountant has also made estimates of future losses.
The court heard Mr Roberts-Smith had also been negotiating with an accountancy firm before the allegations were reported.
Mr Roberts-Smith is also a senior executive at Seven West Media.
“He was attacked publicly by the respondents, they maintained their attack in their defence [documents],” Mr McClintock said.
Mr McClintock revealed he will call Mr Roberts-Smith as the first witness in the trial on Wednesday, after the conclusion of the opening address.
Mr Roberts-Smith’s legal team is arguing for record aggravated damages, citing the “false” attacks on his reputation and the need to compensate him for reputational harm, as well as the need to vindicate him in the eyes of the public.
Newspapers The Sydney Morning Herald, The Age and The Canberra Times are named as respondents in the case, along with journalists Nick McKenzie, Chris Masters and David Wroe.
Mr McClintock said Mr Masters must have known the allegations were false because he wrote a book about the Afghanistan campaign that places Mr Roberts-Smith on a completely different operation in a different part of Afghanistan to where the allegations are reported to have taken place.
The barrister said that meant the allegation was made in bad faith.
Part of Tuesday’s hearing took place in closed court after Mr McClintock flagged a need to refer to documents from the Department of Defence that contain sensitive information relevant to national security.
Mr Roberts-Smith argues the defamatory imputations contained in the articles included that he “broke the moral and legal rules of military engagement” and is “therefore a criminal”.
He claims the allegation he perpetrated an act of domestic violence, which he also denies, portrayed him as a hypocrite because of his public support for anti-domestic violence campaigner Rosie Batty.
The articles further alleged Mr Roberts-Smith had bullied SAS colleagues.
The media company is relying on a truth defence.
Mr McClintock said former governor-general Dame Quentin Bryce, who was expected at one point to appear as a witness, has not withdrawn support for Mr Roberts-Smith.
He said the governor-general would not be appearing for “personal reasons”.
On Monday, Mr McClintock said his client was an “exceptional soldier” whose reputation was torn down by dishonest journalism and SAS colleagues who were jealous of his military awards, including his Victoria Cross.
The trial, before Justice Anthony Besanko, is expected to last for up to 10 weeks.