UPDATED 24 October 2023: The ABC was today ordered to pay Heston Russell’s court costs, the amount of which was not calculated or disclosed. However, the ABC’s own ‘external legal costs’ in this case have been declared at between $700,000 and $800,000. The amount of compensation payable to Mr Russell has been finally calculated at $412,315.48, reflecting $390,000 plus interest.
Former commando Heston Russell has won his defamation case against the ABC and been awarded $390,000 plus interest in damages.
FILE PHOTO: Then Captain Heston Russell in Afghanistan.
The retired major sued the ABC and two of its journalists in the Federal Court over stories that alleged and/or inferred that November Platoon, of which Russell was the commander, committed warcrimes in Afghanistan in 2012.
ABC alleged that November Platoon murdered an Afghan prisoner because they had too many prisoners to load onto an extracting helicopter.
Federal Court judge Justice Michael Lee had already ruled that 10 defamatory imputations were conveyed by the stories published by the ABC, and today’s ruling rejected the ABC’s public-interest defence.
Justice Lee awarded Mr Russell $390,000 plus interest, with costs to be decided separately.
“For reasons [outlined], no party emerges from this case without criticism, but my conclusion is that the respondents have not established the public interest defence and, as a consequence, Mr Russell is entitled to judgment and an award of ordinary compensatory damages” Justice Lee said.
In critiquing Mr Russell, Justice Lee said he believed the former solder had sued the ABC to further his public profile rather than to address a grievance.
“His actions are consistent with someone who has not suffered significant hurt, but rather embraced the public controversy occasioned by the dispute and used it to further his personal causes and profile,” Justice Lee said.
Outside the court after the ruling, Mr Russell told journalists the three-year fight to clear his name was the hardest battle of his life.
“I’ve had to fight harder mentally and emotionally than I ever had to fight … physically in combat,” he said.
“This whole ordeal has traumatised me and some of my soldiers more than any enemy we ever faced overseas.”
He said the defamation case against the ABC was never about the money, but was part of an oath he made to his grandfather.
“He said … “don’t let them do to your soldiers what they did to mine when we came back from Vietnam”.”