Australia’s most decorated living war veteran loses landmark defamation case

Australia’s most decorated living war veteran, Ben Roberts-Smith resigned Friday from his position with Seven West Media following a guilty verdict in a historic defamation case against multiple news companies, who accused Roberts-Smith of committing war crimes during his enlistment in Afghanistan.

The Sydney Morning Herald published the first group of articles about Roberts-Smith on June 8 and 9, 2018. The articles implied that, during his membership with the Australian Special Air Service Regiment (SASR), Roberts-Smith murdered and unarmed and defenseless Afghan prisoner, named Ali Jan, in Dawan. In 2012, Roberts-Smith kicked Jan off a cliff and then ordered a subordinate Australian soldier to shoot him. The publication recounts how “the Australian special forces soldier led his prisoner towards a ridge above a dry creek bed….The prisoner’s fate lay in the ahnds of the man leading him to the edge. His own hands were bound.”

Late in June 2018, more articles were published. In these later articles, Roberts-Smith was accused of the murder and assault of multiple Afghan men under detention, bullying an Australian soldier and domestic violence against a woman.

Australian Federal Court Justice Anthony Besanko delivered his decision Thursday, not as a criminal finding, but on the civil standard of “the balance of probabilities.” Besanko made reference to Section 25 and Section 26 of the Defamation Act 2005 (NSW)Both provisions of the act provide a defense to a claim in defamation, whereby the defendant can prove the publication or defamatory matter is “contextually” or “substantially” true. Besanko found that the allegations set out within the news articles amounted to substantial and contextual truths and thereby dismissed the proceedings.

The full judgement of the Federal Court is set to be published Monday 5 July, 2023. Ahead of that, calls have escalated for Roberts-Smith to be stripped of his revered Victoria Cross medal.