Hobart Mercury’s Sleazy Campaign Yields Record Damages: Gunston v Davies Brothers Ltd [2012] TASSC 15

Andrew Gunston was a policeman in Tasmania whojoined the Force in 1982. On the night of 12 October 2001, while off duty, he went to the Queenstown’s  Empire Hotel for a drink. Or a few drinks. And a game of pool. And a meeting with a lady who he had known for some months. Who he played pool with. And won. Then after midnight, he went with the lady into a dark, little used room and they had a very nice time.

The Hotel’s Bar Manager, Ms Brewer, walked in on the pair in the early hours of the morning of 13 October. She saw Gunston performing oral sex on the lady and told the pair to get a room. So began a series of extraordinary events that was to land this particular Sergeant on many Tasmanian front pages and in many Tasmanian courts, over a number of years. It ended last month.

Back in 2001, ten days after having been walked in on, a person made a complaint to the Internal Affairs of Tasmania Police against Sergeant Gunston. As it happened, that person was a relative of a someone who had been previously arrested by Gunston, but that was besides the point.

On 12 December 2001, the Commissioner of Police dismissed Gunston (why?) and on 4 January 2002, Gunston applied to the Tasmanian Industrial Commission for a hearing of an industrial dispute relating to his sacking.

The hearing started in Hobart before the Industrial Commission on 1 May 2002 and went for 9 days. The Hobart Mercury reported the events from that hearing on a daily basis. Often it used the front page. It also published many daybills, summarizing the previous day’s events, hoping to lure people to buy the paper. These were the publications that formed the core of Gunston’s claim for defamation.

Gunston sued The Hobart Mercury, and all of the journalist writers, in relation to 35 publications. The articles spanned a period from 3 May 2002 to 9 August 2003. He did not complain that the reporting, or any of the subsequent articles, were inaccurate. His complaint arose from the matter of his name.

On the 2nd day of the Industrial Commission’s hearing, evidence was given by Ms Brewer.  She denied she was a gossip and gave evidence that the plaintiff had a nickname of “Sergeant Sleaze”. She believed it was because he put his arms around women in the hotel. That evidence was never corroborated.

This was the only time over the course of the 9-day hearing that Gunston was referred to as Sergeant Sleaze. Other police officers were asked if they had heard of the nickname and they answered no.

Nevertheless, the Hobart Mercury latched onto the nickname like a dog on a bone. At virtually every opportunity after Ms Brewer’s evidence, they weaved the words “Sergeant Sleaze” into every headline, day bill or cartoon possible. For almost 1 and a half years this was done, and Gunston was forever branded.

The headlines from the 35 publications pretty much tell the story about how Gunston won his case before the Industrial Commission and got reinstated, won again after the Police Commissioner appealed the decision (why?), subsequently did a deal with Tasmania Police and then won a separate small case about a neighbour dispute.

Even though only one witness referred to him as “Sergeant Sleaze” in the 9-day hearing, the Hobart Mercury’s headlines included these:

  • My frolic with Sergeant Sleaze;
  • `Sleaze’ case booze alarm;
  • Sergeant Sleaze Case told of Passion at the Cop Shop Party;
  • Sgt Sleaze victim of revenge;
  • Police deny Sgt Sleaze was victim of bad luck;
  • `Sleaze’ reported out of spite, hearing told;
  • Sergeant Sleaze wins job back;
  • Saga of sex and sleaze;
  • Victory for Sgt Sleaze;
  • Hidding urges payout for Sergeant Sleaze;
  • New Sgt Sleaze battle;
  • Force appeals Sgt Sleaze Ruling;
  • The `Sgt Sleaze’ affair took an unexpected turn yesterday;
  • Sleaze appeals back for hearing;
  • Sgt Sleaze faces new charges tilt;
  • Sgt Sleaze in new row;
  • Sergeant Sleaze wins again;
  • Sgt Sleaze heads for the Supreme Court;
  • `Sleaze’ case appeal to receive new evidence;
  • Goodbye to Sgt Sleaze;
  • Police boss silent on Sgt Sleaze deal;
  • Sgt Sleaze returns to court;
  • Victory as ex-cop gets day in court.

The effect of being branded “Sergeant Sleaze” had a devastating impact on Gunston. In his judgment, which was scathing of the reporting, Crawford CJ noted the following:

  1. Other newspapers, journals and television stations did not refer to him as Sergeant Sleaze. Nor did the Industrial Commissioner;
  2. Gunston was shattered by the label, suffering from depression and anxiety;
  3. Whether he was shopping, going about his business or simply in public, in many places around Tasmania, people abused and insulted him, referring to him as Sergeant Sleaze or just generally swearing at him;
  4. Gunston was told that there was a band, the Dead Kilkenneys which had a song with the lyrics “If you go down to Queenstown then you’ll see Sergeant Sleaze”;
  5. Hobart radio station, Triple T, broadcast a comedy sketch each morning entitled “The Adventures of Sergeant Sleaze”;
  6. The University Revue had a skit concerning Sergeant Sleaze, where there was a menu with references to Sleaze and the Sergeant Sleaze Burger;
  7. Gunston was so embarrassed, he changed his name by deepoll. This had no effect and so he reverted back to using his original name;
  8. Two weeks would not go by without the term being used in conversation, even happening 3 days before the trial started;
  9. The nickname stopped him from holding or obtaining employment;
  10. He worked a shift in a hotel, where patrons referred to him as Sergeant Sleaze and one woman told the Manager she was disgusted that Gunston had been hired. He didn’t try to work in the Hotel industry again.
  11. As a taxi driver, he was regularly recognized and abused and called Sergeant Sleaze by customers;
  12. As a security guard he was not allowed to work for a number of clients, including a Hospital, because of concern that a person known as Sergeant Sleaze was working there;
  13. He unsuccessfully applied for many jobs;
  14. He did an Arts degree at the University of Tasmania, starting in 2004. He graduated in 2006 with a Distinction average. He supported himself by working as a taxi driver, because he had no choice.
  15. He applied for just about any job after 2007. He worked for Vodaphone and at a Telstra call centre for about a year, until January 2009, then worked in a hardware store until the trial.

In July 2003, a friend of Gunston, who was helping Gunston to get work in the security industry, wrote a plea to the editor of the Mercury, explaining that he had to remove Gunston from duties on 3 occasions because Gunston had been identified as Sergeant Sleaze and clients did not want that person working for them. He asked the editor to “have the common decency as a person of honour to put an immediate stop to this injustice.”

The references to Sergeant Sleaze continued in the Mercury on 19 July and 9 August 2003.

Supreme Court of Tasmania

At the defamation trial, the defendants tried to argue that Gunston called himself “Sergeant Sleaze”, and had taken on the nickname, but they failed to prove that. They ran defences of fair reports, fair comment and qualified privilege, but lost. The Judge concluded that:

  • the defendants deliberately maintained the ridicule of Gunston by referring to him as Sergeant Sleaze [172].
  • If not for those publications, it is unlikely that Ginston would have suffered any of the consequences referred to in his evidence [185].
  •  The defence that Gunston was dubbed Sergeant Sleaze in the Industrial Commission was a true exaggeration of the true position [188].

In terms of damages, Crawford CJ found that the defendants’ conduct was high-handed, malicious, insulting and oppressive, over a prolonged period of time At [194]:.

 “In general terms, they deliberately engaged in repeated ridicule of the plaintiff for no apparent reason other than they thought that at his expense, members of the public would be drawn to read the newspaper and their reports. None of them has conceded, publicly or to him, that they did wrong. Why that is so is impossible to understand.”

In assessing damages, Gunston ultimately won $124,500. The defendants were jointly liable for that. Not sure if the verdict appeared in the Hobart Mercury, but given that it is apparently a record verdict in Tasmania, one would have thought that it was newsworthy.

 

This entry was posted in Damages, fair and accurate report, Fair comment, News, Trial and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

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