Venture capitalist Dr Elaine Stead sued the Australian Financial Review and their columnist Joe Aston for defamatory statements, which included calling her a “feminist cretin”.
The Sydney Federal Court has ruled that Dr Stead must receive $280, 000 in aggravated and ordinary damages based on comments Aston made in in 2019. Defamatory remarks were found in two of Aston’s Rear Window columns and in one tweet.
Dr Stead was previously a venture capitalist at Blue Sky Alternative Investments. Among his criticisms, Aston said she “made stupid investments” and “set fire to other people’s money”.
The defence pleaded “honest opinion”, with Aston arguing that the comments reflected his actual opinion at the time. He cited tweets that Dr Stead made during Blue Sky’s suspension from trading in 2019.
In his ruling, Justice Michael Lee asserted that, “the targeted campaign of offensive mockery of Dr Stead was unjustified and improper”.
He also said that while “what occurred at Blue Sky was a legitimate (indeed, one might think important) matter of public interested – especially for a newspaper life AFR”, an opinion “needs to be properly based on facts stated in what is written or be otherwise evident”.
Dr Stead’s barrister, Sue Chrysanthou, SC, said in her opening statement that, “there aren’t many high-profile female venture capitalists”. She argued that “Mr Aston targeted my client because she is a woman” and that the purpose of the columns was to humiliate Dr Stead. Chrysanthou is one of Sydney’s most well-known defamation lawyers, having previously won a defamation case for actor Geoffrey Rush.
In his judgement, Justice Lee acknowledged that Joe Aston is a “talented and oftentimes highly entertaining wordsmith”. Aston is well-known for his colourful attacks on businesspeople, politicians and celebrities.
In 2015, he described Darren Davidson, media editor of The Australian as “staggeringly incompetent” and a “village idiot”. In 2018, Liberal MP Julie Bishop was described as a “pioneer of fashion diplomacy, now beyond reproach, her popularity absolution for her vacuity.”
In one of his columns, Aston likened Dr Stead to Brick Tamland, a character from the film Anchorman described as having “an IQ of 48”.
Justice Lee concluded that Dr Stead “was being seriously mocked by Australia’s leading financial daily” and that she experienced a “high degree of subjective harm”.
Originally Dr Stead, was seeking $421, 000 in damages. A spokesperson for AFR said in a statement that the legal fees were more than $2 million on both sides.
AFR continues to defend Aston and stated that “expensive and disproportionate defamation cases like this have a chilling effect on freedom of speech”. They also cited the proposed reforms to the Defamation Act to defend public interest journalism as hopefully “[going] some way to correcting the imbalance”.
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