“I had a look at the definition of hitman, and it means, you know, a paid killer for an enterprise or a criminal enterprise or political enterprise,” he said. “I’m certainly not that.”
Mr Gatto’s wife Cheryl testified to the effect the story had had on the former boxer. United Firefighters’ Union secretary Peter Marshall, and former Age chief crime reporter Tom Noble both argued that he was a man of good reputation.
Mr Noble, who ghost wrote the 2009 autobiography I, Mick Gatto testified that in Melbourne’s gangland not all players are equal and distinctions are important in that world when it comes to understanding the meaning of a reputation.
“If you look at the gangland wars, the people who were involved in they’re mostly low to middle-level drug dealers who became ambitious and violent. For want of a better word there’s no class about them, whereas, I think, Mick has an old-school class about him.”
Mr Gatto’s company, Mr Noble testified, was “a very pleasant place to be,” and the man himself “a very warm person”.
That is how Mr Gatto would like to be seen, but it is not how he was characterised by the ABC’s barrister Dr Matthew Collins QC.
“Mr Gatto’s evidence in cross-examination was a long and consistent series of admissions of his bad reputation,” Dr Collins said.
The ABC chose not to cross examine any of Mr Gatto’s witnesses and called none of their own.
Mr Gatto has pressed and negotiated defamation settlements from other media organisations in the past, including The Age and the Daily Mail, but this was the first time the 64-year-old had gone all the way to trial, with a five-day Supreme Court hearing.
It came to this because Mr Gatto said that despite nearly two decades of media coverage about the self-described “veteran” and “survivor” of Melbourne’s underworld — which he has profited handsomely from — he was “sick of being lied about”.
Adding to Mr Gatto’s frustration was that he could not give his evidence before a jury. Due to a paperwork error by his solicitors Lennon Lawyers, the case was heard before a judge alone — a blunder that could not be reversed.
Mr Gatto has great faith in juries. In 2005, when he last took the stand – on that occasion facing a charge of murdering hitman Andrew “Benji” Veniamin – Mr Gatto believed that testifying on his own behalf is what convinced a “jury of his peers” that Veniamin’s death was an act of self-defence by Mr Gatto.
Acquitted, he proclaimed on the steps of the Supreme Court: “Thank God for the jury system”. In the years of notoriety that followed, the underworld figure has said he happily obliges near-constant requests for photos and handshakes “because you never know who will be on a jury.”
This time, though, he was fighting for his reputation rather than his freedom, and Mr Gatto would frustratingly be denied the opportunity to deploy his famous charm on 12 members of the public.
The February 2019 article at the centre of the fight had published allegations made by Victoria Police in a once-secret legal proceeding that Mr Gatto had threatened to kill barrister Nicola Gobbo after he learned she was an informer. It also included testimony from a criminal known as Witness B from a 2009 court case that allegedly linked Mr Gatto to murders during Melbourne’s gangland war.
For the ABC, Dr Collins has argued the story was a fair and accurate representation of the court proceedings, which is protected under the law.
“These are not allegations being made by the ABC. Something this article is very careful to do in our respective submission is not to adopt or endorse what is said … His anger is directed at the ABC but it was misplaced.”
In his closing, barrister David Klempfner slammed the article as a “snide, underhanded and well-crafted” attack on Mr Gatto whose effect needed to be considered as a whole.
Mr Klempfner alleged the ABC also failed to note there were potential credibility issues for the criminal-turned-informer known as Witness B whose record of testimony in 2009 was central to the ABC story. Witness B had been labelled by the judge in the 2009 proceedings as an “unguided missile … and the sooner he was out of the witness box the better it would be for everyone”.
Witness B has since been exposed as deeply compromised, whose cooperation and testimony was allegedly crafted by Ms Gobbo to help police secure the now quashed murder conviction of another client in 2009, Faruk Orman, an associate of Mr Gatto.
Mr Klempfner also tendered a 59-page submission from Mr Gatto’s counsel arguing why a reasonable person would consider the ABC’s article had defamed Mr Gatto despite his well-known history in Melbourne’s underworld and the fact it was said in court rooms.
“The test for whether something is defamatory is whether it causes someone to be held up to ridicule and contempt or shunned and avoided. This is information (in the article) which may have been adduced in court was being used as a springboard for a broader article which deprives it of its characteristic as a court report, let alone a fair report.”
Mr Klempfner will continue his closing on Tuesday.
Chris Vedelago is an investigations reporter for The Age with a special interest in crime and justice.