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AG Christian Porter sues ABC and Louise Milligan for defamation

Christian Porter, the Attorney-General alleged of a historical rape, has commenced defamation proceedings in the Federal Court against the ABC and its reporter, Louise Milligan.

The ABC told Mumbrella it “will be defending the action”, in which Porter claims an online article, written by Milligan and titled “Scott Morrison, senators and AFP told of historical rape allegation against Cabinet Minister”, is defamatory.

The article, published on 26 February, did not identify Porter, but referred to the complainant, who took her own life last year, making the allegation against a “senior minister”.

Five days later, on 3 March, Porter identified himself as the minister in question at a media conference and strenuously denied the allegation.

The Attorney-General is now seeking to have the article taken down, in addition to damages and aggravated damages. In his statement of claim, Porter alleges the article implies he “brutally raped a 16-year-old girl in 1988”, which “contributed to her taking her own life”.

He says he was sufficiently identifiable in the ABC’s article because only there are only two other senior male cabinet ministers around his age, and on the day the story was published, visits to his Facebook page and website spiked. His name also began trending on Twitter.

The court document reads: “Milligan acted with malice knowing of the impossibility of any finding of guilt or civil liability in the circumstances and believing that a public campaign designed to damage his reputation would be a more effective substitute against Porter in replacement of the process of the justice system.”

Porter, who is currently on medical leave, is represented by a reputable legal team including barristers Bret Walker SC and Sue Chrysanthou SC, and lawyer Rebekah Giles. In a statement, Giles said the article makes “false allegations”, and that Porter was “easily identifiable” despite not being named in the story.

“Over the last few weeks, the attorney-general has been subjected to trial by media without regard to the presumption of innocence or the rules of evidence and without any proper disclosure of the material said to support the untrue allegations,” Giles said.

“The trial by media should now end with the commencement of these proceedings. The claims made by the ABC and Ms Milligan will be determined in a court in a procedurally fair process.

“Mr Porter will have and will exercise the opportunity to give evidence denying these false allegations on oath.”

A trial setting will allow the ABC and the Walkley Award-winning Milligan to “present any relevant evidence and make any submissions they believe justifies their conduct in damaging Mr Porter’s reputation,” Giles added, including deploying the truth defence. If the ABC chooses that route, it would have to prove the truth of the rape allegation.

Given the public interest in the case, the Federal Court has set up an online file making the court documents public; to access court documents usually, an application and payment of a fee is required.

A defamation case is a civil proceeding, meaning the standard of proof is the balance of probabilities and the judge has to be at least 51% convinced of the ABC’s defence. In a criminal setting, the burden of proof is ‘beyond a reasonable doubt’.

News of Porter’s legal action was broken around an hour before the start of March 4 Justice, a series of marches being held around the country calling for justice for victims of sexual assault.

The issue has led the national agenda in recent weeks, beginning with Brittany Higgins’ allegation that she was raped in 2019 in a minister’s office at Parliament House.

The ABC has played a prominent role in reporting on the story, including Milligan’s allegedly defamatory report and the network’s Four Corners’ episode last week, ‘Bursting the Canberra Bubble’, which focused on the allegation against Porter.

The program followed on from last year’s well-known ‘Inside the Canberra Bubble’ episode, which explored the culture of Parliament House and canvassed allegations of sexism against Porter and immigration minister Alan Tudge. Both before and after the episode aired, the public broadcaster faced government pressure over the reporting.

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