Channel Seven has lost a long-running defamation case for illustrating an Adelaide woman as a welfare cheat in a Today Tonight story in 2011.
The three judges presiding over the case at the Full Court of the Supreme Court of South Australia unanimously agreed Channel Seven failed to prove Malgorzata Barbara Poniatowska was guilty of fraud when the segment aired on 26 October 2011.
According to the Today Tonight story, Poniatowska defrauded Centrelink in excess of $20,000 in benefits while working for a building company.
The story, which aired on TV and online, reported Poniatowska “found a loophole in social security law.”
The three judges agreed the story depicted Poniatowska as a welfare cheat who got away with it, with Channel Seven unable to provide sufficient proof.
“Ms Poniatowska instituted an action in the Supreme Court for defamation against Channel Seven, claiming that the story depicted her as a welfare fraud and cheat,” wrote justice Malcolm Blue in the final judgment.
He wrote by “referring to fraudsters and welfare cheats ripping off the system, [the story] conjured up the stereotypical image of a welfare fraudster collecting benefits under false pretences by using false identities or pretending that they are not working.”
In 2008 Poniatowska was charged with 17 counts of obtaining financial advantage by omission, pleading guilty to the charges before recanting her plea and appealing her conviction.
Her appeal was upheld in the Supreme Court before the director of public prosecutions asked the High Court for leave to appeal.
That appeal was rejected by the High Court in October 2011 on the day the Today Tonight story aired.
Poniatowska proceeded to sue Channel Seven for defamation but her case was dismissed by the Supreme Court.
She appealed that ruling to the Full Court of the Supreme Court and won, with the presiding judges finding the previous judge made “several errors” in accepting Channel Seven’s defences.
Channel Seven must now pay Poniatowska an undetermined amount of damages.