The owner of a strip club called “Club Rawhide”, and who successfully sued the Herald Sun for defamation arising out of a published article that contained the defamatory imputation that strip club was a venue for meetings between corrupt police and outlaw motorcycle gangs, has had her damages more than doubled on appeal, with the Supreme Court of Victoria Court of Appeal also awarding damages in relation to an associated radio broadcast.
On 16 May 2013, the Herald Sun published a front page article by journalist Andrew Rule about investigations being conducted by Victoria Police into police officers suspected of having corrupt relationships with outlaw motorcycle gangs in the Goulburn Valley. A group called The Outlaws Motorcycle Club (the Outlaws) was named in the article. The article said that members of the Outlaws “are regulars at a raunchy strip venue, named Club Rawhide” (the Club). The front page article continued on page 4 with a longer article by the same author, Mr Rule. In the longer article, Mr Rule referred to the Club more extensively. He suggested that it was a venue where corrupt police and the Outlaws met to exchange information, and also referred to the person who ran the club as “Madam Mercedes”.
Raelene Hardie is the part owner and manager of the Club.
After becoming aware of the articles, Ms Hardie telephoned Mr Rule and complained to him about the reference that had been made to her as “Madam Mercedes”. They came to an understanding that Mr Rule would apologise the next day on his regular Triple M radio program.
The next day during the radio program, and in what was meant to be an apology, Mr Rule instead stated that he meant “MadamMercedes” in a most respectful way as people do when they talk about the Queen and also referred to Club Rawhide as a “family friendly strip venue”.
Ms Hardie commenced proceedings in the Supreme Court of Victoria against both the Herald Sun and Mr Rule in defamation and claimed damages, including aggravated damages. Ms Hardie alleged that the articles contained the defamatory imputations that she runs a venue in which police gave secret tip-offs to members of outlaw motorcycle gangs that hinder police investigations and frustrate search warrants, and also that she is a brothel madam, running a brothel at the Club.
The Herald Sun and Mr Rule denied liability for defamation. They argued that what was said about the Outlaws regularly attending the Club was true, and that what was said about the Club as a venue was not defamatory of Ms Hardie and was protected by qualified privilege if it was. They also argued that the articles did not say that Ms Hardie was a brothel madam or that the Club was a brothel, and that any reference to “ Mercedes” did not convey such an imputation.
After a six-day trial, his Honour Whelan JA found that the articles contained two of the pleaded imputations, and found in favour of Ms Hardie in respect of only one of those imputations, and awarded compensatory damages of $90,000. His Honour rejected Ms Hardie’s claim for aggravated damages.
Ms Hardie sought leave to appeal and argued that the primary judge erred in failing to find the remaining imputations were conveyed, in assessing compensatory damages at $90,000, and in failing to award aggravated damages.
The court found that the primary judge erred in his assessment of damages in respect of the publication of the articles and increased the damages award to $150,000. The court also found that the imputation arising out of the radio broadcast was in fact defamatory of Ms Hardie, and awarded damages in respect of what Mr Rule said during the radio broadcast at $100,000. No error was found in the primary judge’s failure to award aggravated damages.
Accordingly, the court upheld Ms Hardie’s appeal: Hardie v The Herald and Weekly Times Pty Ltd & Anor  VSCA 103.