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Aston defamation case confronting for a reason

If you’re a stocks nerd, or a politics nerd, or vaguely interested in the business world, Joe Aston’s Rear Window column in The Australian Financial Review is a good read. Part of what it makes it interesting is, to quote Federal Court Justice Michael Lee last week, Aston’s “characteristic acerbity”.

In 2019, Aston directed that acerbity towards Elaine Stead—a venture capitalist, once director and head of venture capital at Blue Sky Alternative Investments. When Blue Sky collapsed, Aston apparently blamed Stead and wrote some nasty things about her. Stead sued Aston and the publisher company, which later merged with Nine (which also publishes this newspaper). Last week she was awarded $280,000 in damages for defamation.

AFR columnist Joe Aston leaves court in December.

AFR columnist Joe Aston leaves court in December.Credit:Steven Siewert

Aston’s columns were spicy reading. Stead was labelled a “feminist cretin”, a “venture capital pyromaniac” and a “prodigious destroyer of capital”. Among other things, Justice Lee found that Aston conveyed the meaning that Stead “is an untrustworthy venture capitalist who fails to deliver on her promises”. When your job is to deliver on promises, and the Fin comes after you like that, it can sting.

You may think that everyone has a right to their opinion, but under Australia’s Defamation acts, you may have a right to express an honest opinion, provided you express it as an opinion, not a fact; the opinion relates to a matter of public interest; and it is based on proper material. The Federal Court decided that in this case the opinion was not based on proper material.

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