V’landys loses appeal but judge slams ABC

Peter V‘landys appealed after he lost a defamation suit against the ABC. Picture: NCA NewsWire / Steven Saphore

NSW Racing boss Peter V’landys’ appeal against a defamation lawsuit loss has been rejected by the Federal Court however a judge found he was “treated shabbily” in the bombshell ABC report.

Mr V’landys last year appealed to the full bench of the Federal Court after losing a lawsuit in 2021 against the ABC over a 7.30 report exposing the inhumane killing of retired racehorses.

The court in May 2021 ruled in the ABC’s favour in the defamation case and ordered Mr V’landys to pay costs.

A judge found The Final Race, which aired in October 2019, portrayed the Australian Rugby League chairman in a negative light but said it did not defame him as someone who callously allowed horses to be killed.

Mr V’landys then pursued an appeal before the Federal Court last year.

And on Friday morning Justice Steven Rares, Justice Anna Katzmann, Justice David O‘Callaghan dismissed the appeal, ordering Mr V’landys to pay the ABC’s legal costs.

However, Justice Rares delivered sharp criticism of the program.

He said it was “understandable” that the prominent sporting administrator would be upset by the program.

“It treated him very shabbily because although the reporter, Ms Caro Meldrum-Hanna, had a wealth of evidence such as covert footage and the information about live thoroughbred horse auctions … on which she could have sought his comment or confronted him, she deliberately never put that to him,” Justice Rares said.

Peter V'landys appealed after he lost a defamation suit against the ABC. Picture: NCA NewsWire / Steven Saphore

The episode featured shocking footage of distressed horses being mistreated and slaughtered at the Meramist abattoir at Caboolture, north of Brisbane, with the graphic vision juxtaposed with Mr V’landys’ recorded interview.

Mr V’landys argued that Ms Meldrum-Hanna did not make him aware of the covert footage prior to it going to air or during his interview

He said the program falsely portrayed him as someone who callously permitted the slaughter of horses and was indifferent to the cruelty meted out at the abattoir.

In his 2021, Justice Michael Wigney rejected that argument and ruled the program instead suggested the industry’s regulators were “asleep at the wheel”.

Justice Rares said the ABC aired the program with Mr V’landys’ interview spliced with covert footage of animals being treated inhumanely and criticism from an animal welfare advocate and a professor.

“It conveyed hard-hitting criticism of Mr V’landys without giving him the opportunity to respond directly,” Justice Rares said.

“That was not high-quality journalism or fair or decent treatment of him.

“Nonetheless I have concluded that the appeal should be dismissed with costs.”

Journalist Caro Meldrum-Hanna’s report The Final Race was at the centre of the case. Picture: ABC.
Journalist Caro Meldrum-Hanna’s report The Final Race was at the centre of the case. Picture: ABC.

During an appeal hearing last year, Mr V’landys’ barrister Bret Walker SC, argued the program suggested Racing NSW had put measures in place to stop the inhumane treatment of retired racehorses however “had done nothing to find out whether they were working or not”.

He said the impression from the program was: “Look at the hopeless job they’ve done, so hopeless you would doubt their assurances of care, you would doubt the honesty of their protestations.”

Mr V’landys argued on appeal that the report conveyed that he had turned a “blind eye” to what he must have known was occurring to retired racehorses.

“Mr V’landys contended that the report conveyed that because the wastage, which should not have occurred, was in fact occurring on such a significant scale as the report graphically showed, he must have known, and then chosen not to do anything, about it,” Justice Rares said.

The ABC’s barrister Peter Gray SC told the appeal hearing that the program did not imply that people within the racing regulator knew about the slaughter of the horses.

Justice Rares said there was “no doubt” that viewers would have perceived that the program was critical of Racing NSW and its measure in preventing “wastage” and animal cruelty.

However, he said it would have been understood that there was no footage of cruelty inside NSW knackeries.

Justice Rares said presenter Leigh Sales told the audience that Mr V’landys was not made aware of the graphic footage before and during the interview and rejected the argument that the Racing NSW boss was portrayed as a liar.

“The viewer would have been drawn to the impression that Mr V’landys did not know of those matters, but he probably should have,” Justice Rares said.

“The ordinary reasonable viewer, however, would not have understood the report to be saying that Mr V’landys had turned a blind eye to the risk that the kind of activities that the report’s two-year investigation had exposed were occurring.

“And, the viewer would not have concluded that Mr V’landys was a liar.”