Venture capitalist Elaine Stead has been awarded $280,000 in damages after the federal court found she was defamed by the Australian Financial Review and journalist Joe Aston.
Stead, the former managing director of venture capital at Blue Sky Alternative Investments, sued the AFR and Aston over a series of published columns where she was described as a “feminist cretin” who “set fire to people’s money”.
Justice Michael Lee found the Aston had defamed Stead in a “sustained campaign of offensive mockery” which amounted to a “form of bullying”.
In his judgement, Lee said what was happening at Blue Sky Alternative Investments was in the public interest, but Aston had expressed himself in “an offensive way”. He said Stead suffered a “slow death” as a result of Aston’s determination to “go after” her.
“A writer targeting and addressing the perceived folly or sins of others walks a fine line,” Lee said. “It is a line which reflects the tension between two important rights which the law of defamation seeks to balance: the right to freedom of expression and the right to reputation.”
“What occurred at Blue Sky was a legitimate, indeed, one might think important, matter of public interest – particularly for a newspaper like the AFR,” Lee said.
“However, given the offensive way that Mr Aston expressed himself, it appears Dr Stead felt she had no choice but to resort to the blunt instrument of defamation litigation, which, despite the best efforts of the court, was unable to be resolved consensually.
“This does not mean there is a need for opinion or leader writers to be mealy-mouthed in denouncing hypocrisy, cant, farce or misfeasance, but unless one is prepared to prove the truth of what is said (or invoke some other recognisable defence), the opinion needs to be properly based on facts stated in what is written or be otherwise evident.”
In a statement, Stead said she hoped the federal court judgement brings an end to “more than two years of personal embarrassment, anxiety and distress”. Although grateful to the judicial process for helping her “repair the damage” to her professional reputation, she said she would never be able to completely undo all the damage done.
“During my case, the AFR and Mr Aston issued more than 20 subpoenas to Blue Sky, ASIC and others, which produced over 12,000 documents including about 8,000 from ASIC. However, just over a month before the trail commenced, AFR and Mr Aston abandoned their truth defence,” Stead said.
“Justice Lee found that the key alleged facts in the articles were not true in substance and did not support the opinions expressed. His Honour also found that Mr Aston engaged in an “unjustified and improper campaign of vilification” and a “form of bullying”.
“I would like to thank those who stood by me during this difficult process. I especially want to thank the witnesses who gave evidence on my behalf, my legal team, my immediate family and other friends and colleagues who have supported me throughout the case.”
The AFR said it was proud of Aston’s work and will continue to report on “corporate governance issues without fear or favour”. They said both sides’ legal fees amounted to more than $2 million.
Dr Stead was awarded $280,000 in damages, including aggravated damages, with matter to be finalised when it returns to court on February 3.