The Hobart Mercury newspaper has been ordered to pay a former police officer more than $124,000 in damages after it dubbed him “Sergeant Sleaze”.
Andrew Scott Gunston was sacked by police after performing a public sex act on a woman in a Queenstown pub in 2002 but was later reinstated.
Last year Mr Gunston sued the paper for inaccurate coverage of his Tasmanian Industrial Commission hearing, which resulted in the paper using the defamatory label in articles over a 15-month period.
The Supreme Court heard the Mercury inaccurately reported those proceedings, wrongly stating that one of Mr Gunston’s colleagues had told the Commission he had become known as “Sergeant Sleaze” in Queenstown.
During the hearing the court was told The Mercury published 34 articles, cartoons and letters which Mr Gunston claimed defamed him.
Chief Justice Ewan Crawford said he had “no hesitation” in concluding the paper, its then editor and four of its former journalists had defamed Mr Gunston and that had affected his ability to find work.
Mr Gunston’s lawyer says it is the highest ever damages payout in the state for defamation.
• How The Mercury reported it:
A FORMER police officer has been awarded $124,500 plus costs against the Mercury’s publisher, Davies Brothers Limited, in a defamation action dating back to 2002.
Andrew Scott Gunston was dismissed by Tasmania Police in 2001 after he was caught performing a sex act on a woman in a Queenstown pub in October that year.
He took his case to the Tasmanian Industrial Commission, which ordered he be re-employed, but was eventually granted a cash settlement and left the police force.
The Mercury covered the industrial dispute and other matters throughout 2002 and into 2003 using a salacious nickname, which was first mentioned in the industrial proceedings, throughout those reports.
Mr Gunston sued the newspaper over 30 articles, four street posters and two cartoons published in the Mercury between May 2002 and August 2003 as part of its coverage of an industrial dispute.
Mr Gunston’s lawyer, David Gunson SC, asserted his client had been defamed and his reputation damaged as a result of the reporting.
Chief Justice Ewan Crawford agreed, yesterday handing down his judgment in the Supreme Court of Tasmania by video link from Burnie to Hobart. He said the reports were extremely unfair and had subjected Mr Gunston to scorn and ridicule.
The judge found it was an appropriate case in which exemplary damages should be awarded.
Speaking outside the court, Mr Gunson said his client was pleased with the outcome of the case and intended to move on with his life.
• What the Judge said: Read for yourself:
Gunston v Davies Brothers Ltd  TASSC 15 (17 April 2012)
202 Exemplary damages may be awarded in a case of contumelious disregard of another’s rights. Uren v John Fairfax & Sons Pty Ltd (supra) at 122, 138, 147, 154 and 160. Those responsible for the publications, and particularly the first and second defendants, chose that when referring to proceedings concerning the plaintiff, he should be referred to as Sergeant Sleaze and the like, when in fact, in almost every case, no such reference had been made to him in the proceedings being reported. It was an extremely unfair way to report proceedings and matters concerning him. When describing him in that way, they were not reporting the news, which is the basic function of a newspaper, but instead were subjecting him to scorn and ridicule.
203 I conclude that they consciously adopted that course. I infer that they did so in the hope and expectation that more members of the public would be attracted by and would read The Mercury for its apparent salacious content, with callous disregard for the feelings of the plaintiff and his reputation.
204 This is a proper case for an award of exemplary damages against the first and second defendants. It was in the commercial interests of the first defendant that the publications were made in that way. The second defendant had overall responsibility for the content of the newspaper and ultimately, it was his responsibility to control it.
205 I have determined not to award exemplary damages against the other defendants, for it was not their ultimate responsibility to determine what should or should not be published.
• Mercury: In court on contempt charges
DAVIES Brothers Limited, the publisher of the Sunday Tasmanian and the Mercury, has appeared in the Supreme Court of Tasmania on contempt of court charges over a story and a photograph which identified a sexual assault victim.
In Tasmania, the law prevents publication of the identity of sexual assault crime victims, irrespective of whether they have given their permission as was the case in the Sunday Tasmanian article published earlier this year without a court order.
The Supreme Court yesterday heard the Sunday Tasmanian had sought external legal advice in relation to the article and the potential breach had not been identified by that lawyer or editorial staff.
As a result the article had appeared in the newspaper.
The court also heard that the acting editor of the publication at the time of the breach had not been advised of the story ahead of its publication and had identified the breach immediately upon seeing the article on the morning it appeared in print.
The then-acting editor took immediate steps to remove the article from the newspaper’s website and eliminate it from the newspaper’s in-house online archive.
The lawyer pro-actively advised the Director of Public Prosecutions of the breach.
“My submission is ultimately that although the procedures in place are not foolproof and ultimately they can’t be, the procedures were followed, legal advice was sought, there was no suggestion of risk in that advice, there was no weighing-up of risk versus commercial value,” lawyer for the respondents Justin Quill, told Justice Helen Wood.
DPP Tim Ellis SC emphasised the purpose of the legislation was to protect the victims of sexually motivated crimes with the flow-on effect of encouraging such victims to report the matter to police knowing their identities would be protected.
Mr Ellis said the law was black-and-white on the issue and the breach should not have occurred.
Justice Wood will consider the submissions and hand down her decision at a later date.