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Australia

News Corp co-chairman Lachlan Murdoch, left, seen here in 2019.

Sydney (AFP) - A high-stakes defamation battle between News Corp co-chairman Lachlan Murdoch and small Australian news outlet Crikey will go to trial beginning March 27 in Sydney.

Rupert Murdoch's eldest son -- who is also chief executive of Fox News parent Fox Corporation -- is suing Crikey over an opinion piece that linked his family's media empire to the January 6, 2021 storming of the US Capitol by supporters of then-President Donald Trump.

The media scion's lawyers claimed their client was defamed over a dozen times in the article, which accused "the Murdochs and their slew of poisonous Fox News commentators" of being "unindicted co-conspirators" in the Capitol riot.

On Friday, Murdoch's barrister -- top defamation litigator Sue Chrysanthou -- pushed in the preliminary hearing for the earliest possible trial date, arguing Crikey had been "directing ridicule and hatred" towards her client.

Crikey was "publicly claiming martyrdom", she told the largely administrative case management hearing, pointing to the outlet running billboard advertisements about the case and fundraising online for its defense.

In the past month, Crikey's GoFundMe campaign has raised nearly S$333,000, and garnered support from two former Australian Prime Ministers, Kevin Rudd and Malcolm Turnbull.

"Lachlan Murdoch owns boats that are worth more than Crikey," Turnbull commented alongside his $3,400 donation.

A Very Public Fight

The legal scuffle over the opinion piece burst into international headlines last month, when Crikey ran an advertisement in The New York Times daring Murdoch to sue.

The often pugilistic website said it welcomed the opportunity to "test this important issue of freedom of public interest journalism in a courtroom".

Murdoch filed his lawsuit the next day.

The tussle pits an upstart website, with subscriber numbers in the low tens of thousands, against one of the world's largest media empires.

Defamation expert David Rolph from the University of Sydney told AFP that Murdoch's case could be the first test of recent attempts to reform Australia's notoriously tough defamation laws.

Australia has gained a reputation as "the defamation capital of the world" after a slew of lawsuits launched by high-profile figures, including actors and politicians.

Crikey's defense, filed with the Federal Court Tuesday, denied it defamed Murdoch and flagged it would lean on two new defenses created by the reforms.

"One is a serious harm threshold... the plaintiff now has to prove that they not only suffered some harm to reputation, but that it was serious harm to reputation," Rolph explained.

Crikey will also seek to argue that the opinion piece, by writer Bernard Keane, was in the public interest.

"I suppose the difficulty here is that defense is entirely untested. This will be a test case of that," Rolph said.

'Fundamental Public Importance'

In a statement issued Thursday, Crikey chief executive Will Hayward said his company was fighting the case because "there is an issue of fundamental public importance at stake".

"We think it is important in an open, well-functioning society that the rich and powerful can be critiqued."

While Murdoch has stayed quiet since launching the case, his statement of claim accused Crikey of using the legal saga to drive subscriptions.

He has asked the court to permanently ban Crikey from publishing anything suggesting he "illegally conspired with Donald Trump" around the events of January 6.

The case will be heard by Justice Wigney, who has overseen several closely-watched defamation trials -- including actor Geoffrey Rush's successful suit against another Australian media outlet.

Wigney said Friday that before the trial begins, he would seek to have the parties enter mediation where "cool commercial minds may prevail".

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Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison, center, and former President Trump.

Photo by The White House

Reprinted with permission from Alternet

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison has never publicly claimed to be a QAnon supporter; in fact, he recently slammed the far-right conspiracy cult as "dangerous." But journalist David Gilbert, in an article published by Vice, examines the connection between Morrison and someone who is: Tim Stewart, described by Gilbert as "Australia's foremost QAnon booster."

Gilbert notes that Four Corners, a television series on the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, was recently planning to air a report that addressed Morrison's connection to Stewart — who, according to Gilbert, he has known for 30 years — but said it decided to hold off on airing it because of editorial concerns. At a news conference in Canberra last week, Australia's capitol city, Morrison was vehemently critical of Four Corners — saying that it was "really poor form" for the program to delve into allegations that he has some type of connection to QAnon.

Morrison told reporters, "I find it deeply offensive there would be any suggestion I would have any involvement or support for such a dangerous organization. I clearly do not. It is just also disappointing that 'Four Corners,' in their inquiries, would seek to cast this aspersion — not just against me, but (on) members of my own family."

Gilbert notes that Stewart, who has 20,000 followers on Twitter, was a "vocal" supporter of QAnon "from the very beginning."

"Morrison and Stewart have been friends for 30 years because their wives, Jenny Morrison and Lynelle Stewart, are best friends," Gilbert explains. "The pair were bridesmaids at each other's weddings, and today, Lynelle Stewart works for her friend in the prime minister's residence in Sydney, where she holds a government security clearance."

Members of the QAnon cult believe that the government of the United States has been infiltrated by an international ring of child sex traffickers, pedophiles, Satanists and cannibals and that Donald Trump was elected president in 2016 to lead the fight against the cabal. In the U.S., some far-right Republicans have openly endorsed QAnon, including Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia and Rep. Lauren Boebert of Colorado.

Morrison, meanwhile, has never openly endorsed QAnon in Australia — and he expressed outright contempt for them recently. But as Gilbert explains in his Vice article, some QAnon extremists thought Morrison was giving them a coded signal of approval during an October 22, 2018 speech before the Australian Parliament in which he "apologized" for child abuse on behalf of the government.

Morrison said, "The crimes of ritual sexual abuse happened in schools, churches, youth groups, scout troops, orphanages, foster homes, sporting clubs, group homes, charities, and in family homes as well." And Gilbert notes that Morrison's use of the word "ritual" caught the attention of QAnon supporter Joe M., who tweeted, "Do my ears deceive me? The new Prime Minister of Australia Scott Morrison must be a rider in #TheStorm."

"The storm" is one of the terms used by QAnon, whose members have often spoke of "ritual" abuse. But a spokesperson for Morrison told the website Crikey that the prime minister's use of that word had nothing to do with QAnon.

According to that spokesperson, "The term 'ritual' is one that the prime minister heard directly from the abuse survivors and the National Apology to Victims and Survivors of Child Sexual Abuse Reference Group he met with in the lead-up to the apology, and refers not just to the ritualized way or patterns in which so many crimes were committed, but also, to the frequency and repetition of them."

Morrison's supporters have maintained that his use of the word "ritual" during that 2018 speech is a non-story, and that the prime minister has nothing to do with QAnon. Nonetheless, Gilbert notes that the story has persisted.

Gilbert explains, "The link between Morrison and Stewart wasn't reported in the media until months later when the Guardian linked Morrison and Stewart…. The controversy has not gone away. And whether or not the 'Four Corners' episode was pulled or simply delayed due to editorial concerns…. it will be aired at some point, meaning Morrison will have a lot more questions to answer about his links to Stewart and to QAnon."