A wealthy Queensland family “extraordinarily” defamed by a reckless Nine Network report about the fatal Grantham floods in 2011 has been awarded a $3.6 million damages payout.
Toowoomba’s Wagner brothers were defamed by a 60 Minutes report from May 2015 that incorrectly insinuated they were responsible for the destruction of the town and deaths of 12 people, a Brisbane Supreme Court jury found.
Nine and journalist Nicholas Cater were ordered on Friday to pay each of the four brothers $900,000 plus interest.
Denis, John, Neill and Joe Wagner said the report by journalist Michael Usher insinuated the collapse of a wall of a Lockyer Valley quarry they owned caused the “man-made catastrophe”.
The report, entitled ‘The Missing Hour’, described the wall of water that fatally swept through Grantham as an “inland tsunami”.
The report does not expressly blame them for the deaths but the family believes it led people to believe they caused the disaster, sought to cover it up and refused to answer to the public.
Justice Peter Applegarth was scathing of the network’s “unjustifiable” conduct, saying it was recklessly indifferent with the truth.
“The Nine Network had information that contradicted the allegations contained in the program but did not broadcast it,” he said.
He said Cater’s conclusions were expressed as a result of extensive investigative journalism supported by eyewitnesses but he “did not contact any of the Wagners about the allegations he made about their quarry”.
Justice Applegarth said Cater’s and Nine’s careless actions were exacerbated by their failure to retract or apologise once it became clear their report was flawed.
“60 Minutes and Mr Cater’s respective defamations caused substantial injury to the Wagners’ reputations for integrity … and great harm to them personally,” he said.
Justice Applegarth said the accusation the Wagner’s failed to take steps to prevent the quarry wall collapsing, which led to the deaths and town’s destruction, was an “extraordinarily serious defamation.”
“The program included vision of the devastation of Grantham and the trauma of flood victims, including the inconsolable grief of a mother whose infant was taken from her arms in the flood,” he said.
Outside court, Denis Wagner said the family was pleased the truth had come out.
“They knew, or should have known, a lot of the stuff they reported was incorrect,” he said.
“It’s been very challenging. This 60 Minutes’ program was broadcast all around Australia with more than a million viewers.
“It did have a profound effect on us individually and the family.”
He said the judgment would send a clear message to the media about the community’s expectation for truth and facts to be reported.
“What will come from this is that journalists and media can and will be held accountable if they do not report issues honestly and fairly,” he said.
Cater and Nine were ordered to pay each of the four brothers $300,000 and $600,000 respectively.
Nine said it would review the judgment and consider its position.
Cater declined to comment.