Australia: Decorated Soldier Loses War Crimes Defamation Case

    Australia: Decorated Soldier Loses War Crimes Defamation Case
    Last updated Jun 01, 2023
    Image credit: US Army [via Wikimedia Commons]


    • Australia's Federal Court Justice Anthony Besanko on Thursday dismissed the multimillion-dollar defamation case brought by the country's most decorated soldier, Ben Roberts-Smith, against three Nine-owned newspapers.[1]
    • The Victoria Cross recipient and former Special Air Service soldier sued the Age, the Sydney Morning Herald, and the Canberra Times for libel after they depicted him as a war criminal, a bully, and a liar who "broke the moral and legal rules of military engagement."[2]
    • Justice Besanko, however, found that the publishers had proven most of its claims made against Roberts-Smith, including war crimes allegations, after a 110-day trial that cost an estimated A$25M ($16.5M USD).[3]
    • The newspapers argued successfully that the war veteran ordered or acquiesced in the execution of unarmed Afghan civilians assaulted or authorized the assault of unarmed Afghans, and bullied a fellow soldier. This reportedly broke the moral and legal rules of military engagement and disgraced the country and the army.[4]
    • The full reasons will be published on Monday afternoon after the commonwealth has checked the civil judgment — which is not a criminal finding of guilt — for national security concerns.[5]
    • Roberts-Smith, who is now an employee of Nine's rival outlet Seven West Media after leaving the army in 2013, received Australia's highest military award, the Victoria Cross, in 2011 before falling from grace in 2018 when the reports came out.[6]


    Narrative A

    Roberts-Smith brought this defamation suit to try to vindicate his reputation, with his lawyers arguing that he was easily identifiable even though the 2018 reports did not name him. However, this move has backfired now that the newspapers have been found to have told the truth. The judge has ruled loud and clear that the Victoria Cross recipient is a war criminal and murderer.

    Narrative B

    This is certainly a victory for the newspapers but the legal battle is far from over. Roberts-Smith's legal team is now assessing the lengthy judgment in order to pursue a potential appeal of the decision, which would go to the full Federal Court first and to the full bench of the Federal Court next.

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