Former federal Liberal MP Sophie Mirabella is suing a newspaper and its editor for defamation.Former Liberal frontbencher Sophie Mirabella felt “sick to her stomach” when she read an article wrongly accusing her of pushing an opponent during a photo opportunity while campaigning for the 2016 federal election.
Ms Mirabella is suing weekly newspaper The Benalla Ensign and its editor Libby Price in the Victorian County Court over an April 2016 article about an encounter with Indi member Cathy McGowan.
Ms Mirabella, who lost the seat to Ms McGowan in 2013, says the article defamed her by falsely claiming she pushed the incumbent MP out of the way of a photograph for her own political benefit.
Barrister Georgina Schoff QC said the newspaper admits the article, which had the headline “Awkward encounter”, was wrong.
“One of the strange things about this case is that there is no dispute that the defendants got this wrong,” she told a jury of six people in Wangaratta on Thursday.
Ms Schoff said The Benalla Ensign admits Ms Mirabella did not push Ms McGowan.
“That article was fake news,” the barrister said.
The offending article was published five days after then-aged care minister Ken Wyatt visited a Benalla facility on April 15, 2016 for the opening of a new wing.
Ms McGowan was also present and requested a photo with Mr Wyatt.
But a Liberal Party staffer and Ms Mirabella wanted to avoid “giving her legitimacy” with Liberal voters.
Mr Wyatt subsequently made an excuse about not having enough time, and Ms McGowan asked Ms Mirabella “you don’t mind, do you?”
The Liberal candidate replied: “If you wanted to have promotional material with a Liberal minister, you should have run as a Liberal candidate”.
Five days later, The Benalla Ensign ran its article claiming Ms Mirabella had “publicly pushed” Ms McGowan.
Ms Price did not witness the encounter, instead relying on four sources, Ms Schoff said.
Six months later, after the federal election, The Benalla Ensign acknowledged Ms McGowan was not pushed.
But by then Ms Mirabella knew the story would never go away.
“The paper got it wrong and she needs you to tell the whole world that the paper got it wrong,” Ms Schoff said.
Counsel for Ms Price and the newspaper, David Gilbertson QC, said the article was substantially true.
“The article wasn’t ‘fake news’ at all,” he told the jury of five men and one woman.
Saying someone had pushed someone out of the way “is a figure of speech”, he said.
Mr Gilbertson also said Mr Wyatt will give evidence Ms Mirabella had put her hands on his chest to prevent him turning and having his photo taken.
“It is substantially true that Ms Mirabella pushed a politician to prevent him from having a photo being taken with Ms McGowan,” he said.
Ms Mirabella appeared emotional as she described her entry into politics and her family background from the witness box on Thursday afternoon.
She is due to continue giving evidence on Friday.
Mr Wyatt and Ms McGowan are scheduled to appear next week.
Australian Associated Press