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AUSTRALIA: An Introduction to Australia

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By Justin Quill and John-Paul Cashen

After a number of years of stability, the media landscape in Australia has changed a great deal in the past 12 months with a number of significant mergers and acquisitions across major players.

Most significantly, Channel Nine effectively purchased Fairfax Media and Macquarie Radio creating what is now probably the largest full service media organisation in Australia covering newspapers, television, radio and digital. American media giant CBS purchased Channel Ten wiping out $800 million of debt. And whispers continue to circulate that Seven West Media is a takeover target, possibly by News Limited. Aside from creating acquisition work, it created some movement in the firms from whom major media organisations obtained their legal services.

At the same time many legal challenges have confronted the industry.

In early 2019 numerous media organisations were charged with contempt of Court over reporting on the conviction of Catholic Cardinal George Pell for child sex offences. The case sees Victorian courts and prosecutors grappling with the challenges of attempting to criminalise conduct occurring outside of its jurisdiction. It also raises significant questions about whether there remains any benefit in Courts attempting to control information for traditional news publishers, when the same information is readily available online. Just about every major media organisation, along with senior journalists, editors and news directors, were charged with contempt of Court. All those facing charges have retained Macpherson Kelley to defend them.

Australian Federal Police raids on News Limited journalist Annika Smethurst in her home and the Sydney offices of Australia’s national broadcaster, the ABC, created waves in the media legal industry because the AFP searched documents that could reveal sources.

These cases have spurred significant action from Australia’s Right to Know coalition (made up of all major media organisations) to launch a campaign challenging secrecy in Australia and pushing for greater press freedom and greater accountability for governments seeking to suppress information.

Defamation litigation has also been prominent. The past year saw record defamation payouts in the Wagner v Harbour Radio case involving prominent broadcaster Alan Jones. The Court ordered that the four Wagner brothers receive approximately $3.74 million in damages, interest and costs. And several high profile defamation cases continue to keep defamation action in the minds of the public. These include actors Geoffrey Rush, Rebel Wilson and Craig McLachlan and the Alan Jones Harbour Radio case.

Major firms in this space are Macpherson Kelley with Principals John-Paul Cashen and Justin Quill, Ashurst with Partner Robert Todd, Minter Ellison with Partners David Poulton and Peter Bartlett, Banki Haddock Fiora with Leanne Norman, Mark O’Brien Legal with Partner Paul Svilans, Addisons with Partner Justine Munsie and Nicholas Pullen at HWL Ebsworth.