With a small army of lawyers having already gouged hundreds of thousands of dollars in fees, Canberra law firm Meyer Vandenberg continues to stand over independent media with defamation threats, writes Michael West.
Archie Tsirimokos, senior partner and chair of Canberra law firm Meyer Vandenberg, might be ruing the day in April when his firm fired off a barrage of defamation threats. Their targets were Michael West Media (publisher of this journal); independent journalist, Marcus Reubenstein; publisher and retired public servant John Menadue; UTS Professor James Laurenceson and school principal and Chinese Australian community leader Suzie Cong.
In what surely ranks as one of the most farcical attempts by lawyers to use Australia’s loose defamation laws to silence the media, Meyer Vandenberg’s campaign of threats landed its client in a separate Federal Court claim brought on by one of their targets, Reubenstein, who is a small independent publisher and contributor to Michael West Media.
Their client, a researcher in the federal parliamentary library and former contributor to the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI), has been labelled by The Sydney Morning Herald as a “relentless” Tweeter of anti-Chinese Communist Party commentary. Reubenstein wrote an article (still published at MW Media) questioning why a supposedly impartial public servant was running a substantial campaign of political commentary during work hours.
In his court action launched to counter the threat to his livelihood, Reubenstein claimed that among this public servant’s 42,000 Twitter posts were numerous defamatory publications suggesting Reubenstein is engaged in foreign interference on behalf of the Chinese Communist Party.
Reubenstein sued both the public servant and his employer, the Department of Parliamentary Services, over publications made during office hours, for both defamation and copyright breach for the unauthorised reproduction of images owned by Reubenstein.
That claim was settled confidentially on what appears to be very favourable terms for Reubenstein. A public statement agreed to by the parties announced the lawsuit against Reubenstein being threatened by Meyer Vandenberg has been dropped.
There is no mention that Meyer Vandenberg was able to recover any of its client’s costs.
All of the publications for which Reubenstein was suing were deleted within three days of his statement of claim being lodged in the Federal Court. Meyer Vandenberg and lawyers for the Commonwealth twice sought extensions which allowed the matter to run through the courts for nearly four months without them having to lodge a defence against Reubenstein’s claim.
In short, Meyer Vandenberg sent Reubenstein a 57-page defamation threat; he responded by filing a separate claim against their client and his boss the federal government; and the parties reached a confidential out-of-court settlement.
In circumstances where one party sues for defamation, the other party deletes the entire publication and publishes a statement that says there is no suggestion Reubenstein ever “acted improperly against Australia’s national interests”, it hardly comes across as a major victory for Meyer Vandenberg.
As part of the settlement Reubenstein deleted several publications relating to Meyer Vandenberg’s client, however, Reubenstein has made numerous social media publications on Twitter, LinkedIn and YouTube commenting directly about the facts of this case which remain online.
In addition, the original article published by Michael West Media has not been deleted or amended in any way. We have, from the start, defended the story as true, and very much in the public interest, and that Meyer Vandenberg has engaged in a SLAPP suit.
After having to endure the psychological damage of litigation which potentially would have bankrupted him and force the shutdown of his independent news website APAC News, Reubenstein was able to clear his name and Meyer Vandenberg was forced to withdraw its threat.
In June, Menadue deleted two articles, authored by Reubenstein, from his public policy website Pearls and Irritations, without any admission of the stories being defamatory or factually incorrect. It was a case of an 86-year-old distinguished Australian, relentlessly pursued by Meyer Vandenberg, who simply had enough of their campaign legal threats.
Why then have they not withdrawn their threats to MW Media, UTS professor Laurenceson and part-time school teacher Cong who simply shared links to, or republished, Reubenstein’s factual public interest reports?
Just who is paying Meyer Vandenberg to continue this campaign?
An army of lawyers and rivers of taxpayer gold
The common thread between all five targets is they are critics of the Australian government and in particular its foreign policies, particularly the “hawks” in government, government-aligned media and “think tank” ASPI who advocate war with China.
MW Media, Reubenstein and Menadue have made regular and vocal criticisms of the Morrison government’s performance on China.
UTS Professor Laurenceson’s criticism is, in comparison, far more muted, while Chinese-Australian school principal Suzie Cong has only criticised one government policy. That was the Department of Parliamentary Services’ decision to explicitly condone the actions of one of its employees who’d published on Twitter her private details along with an image of a group of her seven-year-old students.
Meyer Vandenberg launched what was effectively a SLAPP (Strategic Litigation Against Public Participation) lawsuit. A SLAPP suit is legal action undertaken by a large client in order to silence critics by threatening multiple small parties with financially crippling claims.
In total it had amassed a seven strong legal team in its failed attempt to sue Reubenstein and four others.
The obvious question is why would a self-described reputable law firm take on five potentially multimillion-dollar claims representing a government employee with no apparent financial means to fund that litigation?
On numerous occasions, MW Media put that question to Meyer Vandenberg. Eventually senior partner Tsirimokos responded through an SMS demanding we stop contacting him.
The Commonwealth of Australia only had three lawyers working on the case they were dragged into by a lone public servant.
It is not clear whether the Commonwealth bore any of Meyer Vandenberg’s costs in this case, however, Department of Finance figures reveal in total the Canberra lawyers have received more than $22 million in federal government contracts.
One of those federal government contracts, for $126,820, was awarded just 10 days after Meyer Vandenberg sent off legal threats on behalf of a federal government employee.
Taxpayers left holding the bill
Regardless of the ethics of a government-funded law firm privately suing five individuals on behalf of a government employee — who happens to be a vocal supporter of the federal government’s current foreign policy and foreign interference laws — their failed attempt to silence government critics has left taxpayers holding a substantial bill.
Independent verified analysis of this parliamentary library researcher’s Twitter account clearly shows he substantially tweeted during office hours and using government resources.
In addition, Liberal senator James Paterson publicly endorsed the right of this researcher to engage in Twitter commentary at a Senate Estimates Committee hearing in March. Three weeks after this very public political endorsement of this researcher, Meyer Vandenberg began firing off legal threats.
In responding to questions from MW Media, the Department of Parliamentary Services indicated it consented to its employee’s campaign of defamation threats.
At the very least, the government had knowledge of their researcher’s Twitter activity and because of this the Commonwealth was forced into this litigation.
It is safe to assume that taxpayers were left to pay hundreds of thousands of dollars in legal fees, on a failed defamation action brought about by a government employee.
Silence the critics plan spectacularly backfires
MW Media was subject to a legal threat from Meyer Vandenberg, and a second thrown in for good measure, after we had the temerity to disclose on social media that we’d been threatened in the first place.
The threats were marked “Private and Confidential” despite there being no basis in law to threaten people and then demand those threats remain confidential.
Meyer Vandenberg either refused or ignored multiple requests to substantiate exactly how the articles written about their government employee client were not factual nor in the public interest.
Each of the five defamation targets made offers of amends to Meyer Vandenberg within 28 days of receiving Concerns Notices. At the time Meyer Vandenberg either rejected or ignored all of those offers, forcing their targets to spend a combined total of some $30,000 in legal fees simply responding to the vexatious threats.
Clearly their aim was to protect their client from media scrutiny beyond just two reports published on independent media websites.
And how did that turn out for them?
A Google search of the parties to this case reveals five pages of results. To date, the case of their aggrieved client has been reported across most of Australia’s major media outlets, including The Sydney Morning Herald, The Age, The Australian, The Daily Telegraph, news.com.au, NCA Newswire, and News Corp websites in every Australian capital city. It even garnered international coverage in The Economist and South China Morning Post.
This might not have been the expected outcome for their client, but for Meyer Vandenberg its failed campaign of defamation threats ended up delivering the firm billable hours which would have run well into six figures. Any embarrassment to the firm’s partners has been well and truly cushioned by the fees.
What began as a lawyers’ picnic eventually turned into shark-like fee feeding frenzy, with a total of 13 lawyers from both sides feasting on the carcass of Meyer Vandenberg’s ill-fated attempt to silence critics of the Morrison government.
The question which hangs around is exactly who footed the bill?
Editor’s Note: there have been a number of efforts made by MW Media to resolve the Wade. Meyer Vandenberg’s threats of court action remain, despite these efforts. The firm has declined to reveal who is funding the matter. ASPI has declined to respond to questions surrounding the involvement of it or its associates.