IT started with a defamation battle between prominent Hunter media personality Aaron Kearney and radio station 2HD Newcastle over an early-morning talkback call.
Now a law firm has been granted permission by the Supreme Court to chase the caller for $46,796 in damages.
The long-running defamation stoush was initially settled out of court in December 2010 with an agreement awarding Mr Kearney almost $70,000 in damages and costs from 2HD.
Kearney, who was hosting ABC 1233's breakfast program at the time, launched a defamation case after 2HD aired false allegations from a caller that he'd been convicted of drink-driving three times in two years.
Several months later, a cross-claim was brought by 2HD against the caller, Craig Stephens, of Thornton, claiming he was jointly responsible for defaming Mr Kearney. The broadcaster said the case had cost it more than $106,000 and wanted Mr Stephens to pay part of the bill.
A Supreme Court hearing in April 2012 heard Mr Stephen's called 2HD at 3.21am on February 23, 2010, and was put live to air telling presenter Gary Stewart the false allegations about Mr Kearney. He claimed they were detailed on the front page of the Newcastle Herald. That was also false.
"Front page of the paper there … local ABC presenter Mr Kearney done for drink driving for the third time in two years," he said. "I, um think it's a might hypocritical how these people get on and they are all high and mighty about moral and standards and stuff yet they can't follow the law themselves. I think it's pretty bad and I think the ABC should do something about it ... I don't even know how you keep a licence with that sort of record."
Mr Kearney had never been convicted of drink driving and there was no story in the Newcastle Herald.
Mr Stephens, a regular talkback caller, later admitted he accepted the word of a “complete stranger” he met at a truck stop and then called the radio station. He told the presenter it was on the front page of the paper because when he’d called radio stations before “they don’t take third-hand information”.
“I believed it was true,” he told the court. “I had no reason to doubt it was true.The bloke who told me was convinced, I believed him.”
After being contacted by Mr Kearney, 2HD general manager Guy Ashford agreed to air an apology on the program 10 times between 2am and 4am over three days. "I want to completely retract any adverse claim that was made and on behalf of myself and this station I want to apologise to Mr Kearney for the embarrassment that the broadcast may have cost him," the apology read in part.
The radio station employed a private investigator to find the caller, and several months later Mr Kearney followed up with legal action against 2HD, for whom he had worked previously.
NSW Supreme Court judge David Davies said Mr Ashford formed an “early view” that his “radio station was being set up by the call made by Mr Stephens”.
His suspicions, which Justice Davies described as “not surprising”, were sparked by the fact that the day before the call, 2HD broadcast a "blooper" of Mr Kearney accidentally leaving his microphone on while reporting on a football match.
“He had a suspicion that the planitiff, Mr Kearney, or someone on his behalf may have been involved ...,” Justice Davies said.
“When he [Ashford] found out about the blooper tape he thought there was too much of a coincidence in the fact that 2HD had played such a tape the day before, which had upset the plaintiff, and then this extraordinary call has been made by Mr Stephens resulting in 2HD defaming Mr Kearney.”
A link was never found and Justice Davies ruled Mr Ashford's “conspiracy theory” was not relevant to 2HD's claim against Mr Stephens. In another bizarre twist in the case, the court heard that Mr Ashford took to Twitter providing updates of the matter. “75 down to 35 hmmm civil action pending,” he tweeted.
Mr Stephens’ lawyer argued that Mr Ashford’s suspicions and the use of a private investigator resulted in increased legal costs that 2HD was trying to recoup.
2HD successfully argued its cross-claim and Mr Stephens was ordered to pay the radio station $46,796.
With the money not paid, 2HD assigned the debt to its lawyer Stacks Gouldkamp last year and the Supreme Court last month paved the way for the firm to pursue Mr Stephens for the debt.