Channel Nine’s “disgraceful” story – $300,000 damages: Pahjua v TCN Channel Nine PL [2018] NSWSC 893

Sunil Pahuja migrated to Australia at 27, did a Masters in accounting and developed a business installing solar panels. He knew many people in the Indian community and was to become the perfect example of a person who was in the wrong place at the wrong time.

The wrong time was 6.30 on a weeknight. Channel Nine’s flagship show, “A Current Affair” ran a story on Pahuja in 2015, purporting to expose a “cruel immigration scam” that he was involved in. However, the story had such little relation to the truth of the evidence that Channel Nine had in its possession, that Justice McCallum described the conduct of the journalist involved as “disgraceful” and the story of Pahuja’s involvement in the story as something that the journalist had “clearly made it up”.

A Current Affair
A Current Affair

What happened was this. Pahuja was friends with a man who was boarding with him at the time, Satnam Singh. Singh engaged a lawyer, Mr Chand to make an application to the Migration Review Tribunal. Singh lost that application. He then approached a different migration agent, who he found on the internet: Mr Mofid Bebawy at Choice Migration. Singh engaged the new agent to try and get a 457 visa.

On 30 March 2015, Singh attended a meeting at the offices of Choice Migration and Pahuja came along with him. The evidence was that Pahuja had never met Bebawy before. There was no evidence that Pahuja had any previous dealings with Bebawy. At that meeting, Singh signed a contract for Bebawy to work on visa applications for himself and his wife for a fee of $16,000.

Singh rang Mr Chand (previous lawyer) and told him about the new agent. Chand asked Singh to come and see him, which he did with Pahuja. Chand secretly filmed the meeting and repeatedly directed the conversation to the topic of Bebawy. The recording was ultimately used by Channel Nine in its “cruel immigration story”.

One week later, Pahuja got a phone call from a lawyer who acted for Bebawy and asked him if he had made allegations about Bebawy to Channel Nine. Pahuja did not know what that was about. Fifteen minutes later, Channel Nine cameramen arrived at Pahuja’s door and confronted him with an allegation that he was taking a cut from Bebawy. The reporter invited Pahuja to have an interview to “clear the air”, which Pahuja agreed to.

The broadcast went to air on 28 April 2015 and the host started with this:

Now, a hidden camera investigation exposing a cruel immigration scam. Tonight, overseas born residents forced to pay thousands of dollars to dodgy agents in a bid to live and work in Australia and as Jesse Grayson reports, its big business.”

Only one agent was featured on the program, Bebawy. But he was not named and his face was pixelated. His lawyers had gotten wind of the story beforehand and tried to stop it airing. Pahuja, on the other hand, was named and his face was presented front and centre in connection with the allegation that the “dodgy agent” was charging up to $60,000 for a 457 visa.

Pahuja’s denials were not broadcast, even though the journalist, Mr Jesse Grayson invited him to participate in an interview. Pahuja claimed that the broadcast was unfairly edited.

The story was a collection of material, including the secret recording from Chand’s office, interviews with a workplace lawyer and another with the Assistant Minister for Immigration and Border Protection. The unequivocal impression of the broadcast was that Pahuja was part of the scam and acted as the dodgy agent’s “fixer”. Pahuja sued in defamation.

After the trial last year, the jury found that the broadcast carried a number of defamatory imputations, including that the plaintiff was knowingly involved in a cruel immigration scam in which overseas residents were forced to pay tens of thousands of dollars to dishonest immigration agents in order to live and work in Australia. Essentially, the imputations meant that Pahuja exploited vulnerable people for financial gain. He was presented as the villain in the broadcast. The jury also found that Channel Nine had not made out its defence of truth in respect of these imputations and the matter landed with Her Honour Justice McCallum to assess the damages.

Before its broadcast, Channel Nine were in possession of affidavits from Pahuja and Singh that, contrary to the impression of the broadcast, (that Singh was a victim of the scam perpetrated by Pahuja and Bebawy), in actual fact Singh and Pahuja were friends and Pahuja had never met or had anything to do with Bebawy at all.

Even though Channel Nine had that information, it went ahead with the broadcast, and while it pixelated Bebawy’s face and digitally altered his voice, it made no alterations at all regarding Pahuja’s identity. He was front and centre of the story.

While there was some evidence that Channel Nine had of impropriety by Bebawy, there was simply no evidence whatsoever that Pahuja was part of any scam. On the contrary, all the evidence that Channel Nine had was that Pahuja was Singh’s friend. At [50]: “The suggestion that Mr Pahuja was in cahoots with Mr Bebawy was a complete construct of the journalist’s making.”

Nevertheless, the journalist put this question to Pahuja in the broadcast: “so what do you say to allegations though that people say that you’re the guy that is the middle man here. That you bring the people to Mofid, you sit down to negotiate a price?”. The evidence established that the journalist had no basis for putting that question. No allegation had been reported to him that Pahuja was the middle man. His only source, Mr Chand, had clearly stated that Pahuja was Singh’s friend.

At [56], Her Honour noted: “Mr Grayson also said to Mr Pahuja, ‘We’re hearing that you do get a cut from Mofid for bringing him people’, and later suggested (falsely) that he had received that information from Mofid. He had not received any such information from Mr Bebawy or anyone. He clearly made it up.”

Her Honour concluded that the editing of the piece, to portray Pahuja as a middle man or “fixer” was grossly unfair. Mr Grayson’s interview of Pahuja otensibly to “clear the air” was “disgraceful” and the open presentation of Pahuja on the broadcast was unjustifiable. These were matters that substantially aggravated the damages. Also, Her Honour found that Channel Nine’s maintenance of truth defences on many aspects of the broadcast were also unjustified. In all, Her Honour concluded that it was a very serious defamation and assessed the damages at $300,000.

After this debacle, whether the journalist involved remains working for Channel Nine is unknown.