Hero Soldier on Trial: Australia’s ‘Defamation Case of the Century’

Alleged war crimes in Afghanistan . . . 

Yesterday, a high-profile defamation case opened in Sydney that pits rival media conglomerates against each other over the conduct of one of Australia’s most decorated soldiers, Ben Roberts-Smith, in Afghanistan. He is seeking an extensive “uncapped” sum in damages for stories published in The Sydney Morning Herald and The Melbourne Age that accuse him of war crimes as well as domestic violence. Roberts-Smith’s lawyer describes the case as being about “courage, devotion to duty, self-sacrifice and perhaps most important of all, surpassing skill in soldiering . . . on the other hand it’s a case of dishonest journalism, corrosive jealousy, cowardice and lies.”

A decorated war hero and duelling media empires . . .

When Roberts-Smith received the Victoria Cross for Australia, the country’s highest military award, in 2011, he became the Australian Defence Force’s (ADF) most decorated serving soldier. After retiring from the military, he began a career in media as an executive with the Seven Network conglomerate, quickly advancing in seniority. The war crimes allegations against Roberts-Smith were published by outlets owned by rival Nine Network. Seven Network’s owner is paying for Roberts-Smith’s legal team. The Sydney Morning Herald and The Melbourne Age claim that the stories are true, corroborated by multiple sources.

Defamation pre-empting criminal charges?

Roberts-Smith is making a high-stakes move against the Nine Network outlets by launching the defamation case, pre-empting potential criminal charges against him. Stories in the Herald and the Age claim Roberts-Smith committed or was involved in up to six unlawful killings in Afghanistan, as well as crimes in Australia to cover up his alleged war crimes, including intimidating witnesses to Australia’s official war crimes inquiries into the ADF’s conduct in Afghanistan (read Asia Watch coverage of those inquiries here). The case is expected to last about ten weeks.