60 minutes accused of defaming Wagners over 2011 flood

THE combined effect of spooky music, insinuating tones and suggestions the 2011 Grantham tsunami was a "man-made disaster" allegedly amplified the finger-pointing in a 60 Minutes program at the centre of a defamation case.

Toowoomba's Wagner family argues those things combine with suggestions a broken wall at their quarry led to the flooding to imply they "caused" the catastrophe.

Brisbane Supreme Court heard on Thursday that amended wording in the Wagner family's defamation case says 60 Minutes implied the Wagners caused the death of 12 people, including an infant, as well as incomprehensible grief or devastation.

Channel Nine, responsible for the program, is arguing to have the defamation case struck out for a second time.

The media company successfully argued earlier this year that the word "responsible" was too ambiguous and is now arguing new wording that 60 Minutes implied the Wagners "caused" the tragedy was similarly vague.

Last year's flood inquiry found the quarry played no role in exacerbating the floods but rather delayed the wall of water that inundated the town.

The inquiry took place after the 60 Minutes program aired.

Barrister Rob Anderson, acting for Nine Network, said "cause" was not a word used in the broadcast but rather a construct the Wagners' lawyers had developed.

"This is the elephant in the room; the Wagners want to run a case that this means they killed the people of Grantham," he said.

Barrister Tom Blackburn, acting for the Wagners, told the court a person interviewed on the 60 Minutes program implied the tsunami was a man-made disaster that could have been avoided.

"That, we would say, was absolutely pregnant with insinuation and implication," he said.

"It doesn't state what should have been done or how it could have been avoided but what they say repeatedly is 'it was a man-made disaster that could or should have been avoided, therefore something should have been done ... to prevent a catastrophe'.

"He says 'evidence and answers can't come soon enough for Grantham - this is a town that deserves to know how an act of God turned deadly due to the failings of men'."

Mr Blackburn said 60 Minutes only ever identified the Wagners as the "men" connected to the quarry that could have caused this tragedy.

"At the time of the flood, the quarry was owned by one of Australia's wealthiest families, concrete giants the Wagners who declined our request for an interview about the quarry wall," the program continued.

Mr Blackburn said: "That passage comes at a time when the viewer has been roused to an entirely justifiable and understandable state of indignation about the fact the truth has been suppressed, the truth of what caused this terrible devastation has not yet come out."

Justice David Boddice said there was no suggestion the Wagners built the wall and "this sounds "awfully like a suspicious viewer putting two and two together and getting 12".

But Mr Blackburn said the viewer had been "whipped up into a state of ... justifiable indignation" at that point.

"This is a viewer that is told very clearly there is smoke and Channel Nine have done nothing to remove the suggestion of fire," he said.

"It says that the disaster is due to the failings of men and it could have been avoided.

"Who is the person the viewer's going to think who could have avoided this disaster... namely the wall collapsing?

"It could only be the Wagners."

Mr Blackburn said if 60 Minutes did not intend to blame the Wagners, they should have made that clear.

"They mention the Wagners with a background of spooky music, against a background of a graphic description of this terrible tragedy," he said.

"The viewer has been invited to speculate about who it was that should have taken steps to avoid this tragedy but didn't."

Justice Boddice said he would watch the program again before reaching a finding on the strike-out application

The decision was reserved to a date to be fixed. - ARM NEWSDESK

Topics:  60 minutes editors picks john wagner sue wellcamp

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