One of the most maligned figures in the Australian media, Mamdouh Habib, has won a long-running legal battle against some of his prime antagonists — securing a defamation payout from the employers of three of Sydney’s most popular radio shock-jocks. Coming down the steps of the District Court in Sydney on Friday, just moments after being awarded a total of $176,296 in damages from Radio 2UE and 2GB, Habib said he felt vindicated by the decision. "It’s not about the money, it’s about the dignity," he said.
In his ruling the judge found that the comments made about Habib by John Laws and Steve Price from 2UE, and Ray Hadley from 2GB, were "extreme, strongly expressed, exaggerated, unjust, irrational … and also violent". The tone and content of John Laws in particular was "clearly spiteful and laden with ill-will towards Mr Habib, as well as being intentionally aimed at ridiculing the plaintiff".
Most problematically though for Radio 2UE and 2GB, in the context of a defamation trial where truth can be relied on as a defence, was that the comments in question were simply not based on fact.
The case has been in motion for more than six years. First filed in 2006, it went to the District Court, the Court of Appeal, and the High Court before it was finally heard, last year. Its ultimate successful fruition is in no small part due to the devotion of Habib’s legal team (though with the exception of his barrister Clive Evatt, they’ve all now acrimoniously parted ways with the Habibs), and the dogged, tenacious, nature of Habib himself.
A decade on since he was first captured in Pakistan, illegally sent to Egypt and tortured, then imprisoned in Guantanamo Bay without trial for three years, and Mamdouh Habib is still completely consumed and driven by a sense of grievous injustice. Both for what happened to him overseas, and for events since he retuned home.
Ironically, the comments at the centre of this case had nothing to do with the reason Habib came to be subject to such furious media attention in the first place — his alleged terrorist connections. (He has never been charged with any terrorist related offence.) Rather, the shock-jocks were accusing him of committing another great Australian crime — being a welfare cheat.
Laws, Price, and Hadley hit the airwaves against Habib on Thursday 18 August 2005. To set the scene, Habib had arrived back in the country in late January of the same year. For six months he’d faced a maelstrom of mainly negative media coverage. Some driven by a not unreasonable desire to know what he’d been doing overseas before he was arrested, but a lot was uninformed vitriol. Barrister Clive Evatt says, "He was under constant attack from the media when he got back, this was the culmination of it".
That morning a journalist in the Daily Telegraph had run a story about Habib taking part in the City to Surf fun run the previous weekend. The article alleged that Habib was also trying to claim a disability pension. The talk-back hosts were outraged. Over the course of that day they let loose on Habib in a collective roar; how could a man fit enough to run 14 kilometres claim a pension?
Steve Price said, "I wouldn’t call him a terrorist, I’d call him a bludger… a leech on Australia, a social security professional".
John Laws poured scorn on the idea that Habib was damaged by his experiences as a prisoner. "He claims he was physically tortured by US soldiers during his time in Camp X-ray, but, ahh, obviously it hasn’t done him a whole lot of harm… because he was looking as fit as a fiddle to me … He beat 40,000 people and yet he wants a disability pension?"
Laws played a song that included the lyrics, "Hey Mamdouh/Why did the Yankies let you go/Something doesn’t seem right/Very bad your English grammar/How come you’re not in the slammer".
The nastiest exchange of the day came when Steve Price called into the John Laws show and said "… I don’t mind at all whether he gets his umm this disability payment … providing we can organise someone to go out and give him a disability". John Laws laughed, and said "Yeah."
Far from being "fit as a fiddle", evidence presented at the trial — and accepted by the Judge as fact — showed that in 2005 Habib had been diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and a Major Depressive Syndrome. A psychiatric report showed a man in the midst of mental torment; anxiety, panic attacks, poor sleep, and a "preoccupation with his past horrific experiences". Given the brutal torture he received in Egypt, and what is now known from multiple sources about the inhumanity of Guantanamo Bay, this is hardly surprising. Mamdouh’s wife Maha gave evidence that her husband’s running was part of his rehabilitation.
The Judge’s findings wouldn’t surprise anyone with a basic knowledge of mental illness:
"There is no evidence which suggests that any ability to run in the City to Surf event within 82 minutes is inconsistent with a legitimate claim for a disability pension on account of clinical depression. A commonsense analysis suggests the converse might be true, and that physical exercise might be of assistance in managing such depression."
But either way, the basic premise behind the outrage of Laws, Price, and Hadley was wrong. During the trial Habib was compelled to authorise the release of all his Centrelink files. The judge found that these files showed no evidence Habib had ever been dishonest with Centrelink, that at the time of the broadcast he was not receiving a disability pension, nor was he trying to claim one.
(Habib was ineligible for government assistance because he’d received a $140,000 payment in February 2005 from Chanel Nine in return for an exclusive interview.)
So, stripping away this story to its bare facts, and all you have is a highly traumatised man trying to run his demons away, without the benefit of any government money. Suddenly, Habib’s fun run doesn’t seem so outrageous.
The court heard how the broadcasts were a source of ongoing humiliation for Habib and his family: his younger daughter heard about it first at school; Habib was bailed up in the street by strangers; and once, while having a barbecue with his family at a public park in Sydney, someone played a copy of the Laws song for the whole park to hear. The total listening audience for those three broadcasts that day in August 2005, was around a quarter of a million.
Clive Evatt says the judgment is important because it does give Habib some justice, and some vindication. However he also believes it will never completely make up for what was said. "It aggravated the situation, his mind was already deeply disturbed by what he went through, and this added to it. I mean he suffered great psychological damage when he was in prison, and this added to it. If there has been a bit of kindness he might have got better. It’s driven him a bit over the edge."
Mamdouh Habib is happy with the outcome. Not least because it will help him financially with his next big legal battle, suing the members of the former regime in Egypt who he holds responsible for his torture and maltreatment. "I am happy. With the money I can keep fighting, I can pay for more lawyers in Egypt."
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