Mirabella wins defamation case against local paper

Sophie Mirabella broke down in tears and simply said “thank you” to the jury after they found a Benalla Ensign story stating she pushed Cathy McGowan was defamatory.

The five men and one woman had sat through five days of evidence and arguments in the Wangaratta County Court trial, but took just 45 minutes of deliberations to reach their verdict by 5pm on Wednesday.

Both sides agreed Ms McGowan was not pushed, but the defence had tried to argue the story was “substantially true” because Mrs Mirabella allegedly pushed Aged Care Minister Ken Wyatt at the Benalla nursing home event on April 15, 2016.

Speaking after the verdict was handed down, Mrs Mirabella said she was grateful her belief in the legal system had cleared her name.

“It shouldn’t have got to this point, it should have been fixed up soon after the Ensignpublished,” she said.

“It’s been a long and difficult process and I just want to thank the common sense of the jury, thank my family who have stood by me and suffered through a lot of this and of course my lawyers and friends who have been there.”

“Just nonsense” were the words used by Mrs Mirabella’s legal team to dismiss the Ensign’s defence of its incorrect article.

Barrister Georgina Schoff told the jury people would have clearly thought less of Mrs Mirabella after reading the claims she “pushed” a political opponent.

She said the most important fact was true: both sides admitted her client did not push Ms McGowan.

The argument that a “push” was “a figure of speech” was strongly rejected.

“How does someone figuratively push someone out of the way?” Ms Schoff asked.

“It means exactly what it says.”

Ms Schoff said Mrs Mirabella pleaded with the Ensign, Ms McGowan and Aged Care Minister Ken Wyatt at the time to clear her name, but was given no help and had to resort to a defamation claim.

She said in this context, it was “sensible” for her client to secretly record a conversation with Mr Wyatt, asking for his side of the story.

Ms McGowan was criticised for being the only witness to use the word “push” to describe Mrs Mirabella’s contact on Mr Wyatt, during her evidence to the court.

“She issued a statement that simply muddied the water,” Ms Schoff said.

“She and her supporters used it for their political advantage.”

The trial had heard numerous instances of the Ensign article being shared on Twitter, along with insults directed at Mrs Mirabella.

“Truthful and honest reporting is very important … it is particularly important to the voters of Indi,” Ms Schott said.

In one last attempt to prevent a verdict of defamation, Mrs Mirabella was accused of “deceit” in her efforts to win the court case.

Barrister David Gilbertson’s closing address called on the jury to find the story claiming Mrs Mirabella pushed Indi MP Cathy McGowan did not affect her reputation.

The Benalla Ensign’s defence was Mrs Mirabella pushed Minister Ken Wyatt.

“It doesn’t matter, we suggest to you, the article refers to Cathy McGowan personally,” Mr Gilbertson said.

“To place someone’s hands on your chest, having the effect of preventing them turning, is a push.”

He claimed the contradicting evidence of Ms McGowan and Mr Wyatt about where they were standing at the time did not matter because they both said they saw Mrs Mirabella’s hands on the minister’s chest.

Mrs Mirabella’s secret recording of a conversation with Mr Wyatt at a Liberal Party event last year was used to question her credibility.

“She wanted to set Mr Wyatt up in case he gave unfavourable evidence towards her,” Mr Gilbertson said.

“She was harassing him on that recording … At one stage he said ‘you were physically…’ and she cut him off.”

The Ensign’s legal team did not call editor Libby Price to give evidence during the trial and she did not attend Wangaratta County Court throughout proceedings.

The jury was instead asked to believe Mr Wyatt and find it was “deceitful” for Mrs Mirabella to try to discuss her evidence with him.

Both parties will return to court on Thursday for judge Michael Macnamara to assess what damages should be awarded to Mrs Mirabella.