Journalist appeals 'unjust, unfair' Don Burke defamation decision

Television personality Don Burke during an A Current Affair interview, in which lawyers for journalist Wendy Dent claim he defamed her. Picture: Nine Network
Television personality Don Burke during an A Current Affair interview, in which lawyers for journalist Wendy Dent claim he defamed her. Picture: Nine Network

Lawyers for a woman who lost a defamation case against television personality Don Burke have appealed against the decision, arguing it was "unjust, unfair and not in accordance with the law".

Journalist Wendy Dent launched a defamation lawsuit against Mr Burke after an A Current Affair interview in which the former Burke's Backyard host denied allegations including that he asked Ms Dent to audition topless for his TV program in the 1990s.

Mr Burke gave the interview in November 2017 after a number of women had accused him of misconduct, including sexual harassment.

Ms Dent claimed that in denying the allegations she made, Mr Burke defamed her by making her out to be a liar and part of a "witch hunt" against him.

ACT Supreme Court Justice David Mossop found last year that the imputations had not been made out because Mr Burke's denials lacked credibility and an ordinary, reasonable viewer was unlikely to have believed the celebrity gardener. The judge described the finding in favour of Mr Burke as "ironic".

Ms Dent's barrister, Greg Stretton, SC, told the ACT Court of Appeal on Thursday that the finding was not ironic, but rather "unjust, unfair and not in accordance with the law".

Mr Stretton said Burke's Backyard had run for well over a decade and during that time, viewers would probably have come to regard it as a good program, hosted by a credible man who provided audiences with useful information.

He argued that Justice Mossop had been mistaken and Ms Dent had in fact been defamed when Mr Burke dismissed her allegations as "not true", and claimed to be the victim of a "witch hunt".

Wendy Dent (left) with her lawyer Zoe Jones in June 2019. Picture: Elesa Kurtz

Wendy Dent (left) with her lawyer Zoe Jones in June 2019. Picture: Elesa Kurtz

"There's an old saying: you throw enough mud and some of it will stick," Mr Stretton said.

But Mr Burke's barrister, Sue Chrysanthou, told the appeals court viewers would "absolutely not" have thought less of Ms Dent after watching the interview.

Ms Chrysanthou said Ms Dent had been "mentioned for about two seconds" in a broadcast that ran for more than 20 minutes, meaning her specific allegations and Mr Burke's response to them would not have been the thing that stuck in viewers' minds.

She said interviewer Tracy Grimshaw had been "relentless, like a cross-examiner" in repeatedly challenging Mr Burke and asking him why multiple accusers would all be lying.

Ms Chrysanthou said Ms Grimshaw had adopted an "accusatory tone" and expressed scepticism, incredulity and resignation when Mr Burke denied allegations made against him.

She said Ms Grimshaw's approach had effectively told viewers to "believe the women", and that Mr Burke had "changed his story" throughout the interview.

Ms Chrysanthou said A Current Affair had portrayed Mr Burke as lacking in credibility and viewers would have therefore considered her client's denials "so weak", meaning he could not have defamed Ms Dent.

"The ordinary, reasonable viewer would think, to be frank, that he's quite absurd," Ms Chrysanthou said.

The appeals court panel, comprised of Justice Chrissa Loukas-Karlsson, Justice John Burns and Justice Natalie Charlesworth, reserved its decision.

This story Don Burke defamation decision 'unjust': journalist's lawyers first appeared on The Canberra Times.