Van Onselen loses Network Ten contract breach lawsuit

Former Network Ten political editor Peter van Onselen has lost a contract breach lawsuit against his former employer over a scathing column he wrote in The Australian.

“I am persuaded that the article is a one-off mistake,” NSW Supreme Court Justice David Hammerschlag said in his judgment on Friday.

“The making of a declaration is, in the particular circumstances of this case, sufficient assuagement for Ten of its grievance.”

Van Onselen quit his position in March and signed an agreement not to disparage the network or its American owner Paramount, in exchange for a $71,000 redundancy payout.

Ten sued Dr van Onselen over a column he wrote in The Australian months later, questioning Paramount’s plummeting share price and referring to the network as “the minnow of Australian commercial television”.

Zooming into his hearing last month from Italy’s Amalfi coast, van Onselen said he did not read the non-disparagement clause in his redundancy contract after being reassured by Paramount human resources executive Anthony McDonald he could disparage Ten in various circumstances.

“I used the phrase ‘If the CEO was caught f—ing a goat and the rest of the media was piling on then surely I would not be precluded from doing the same’,” van Onselen told the court.

“I remember Mr McDonald being reassuring and saying something to the effect of ‘of course, hopefully it won’t come to that’.”

Mr McDonald told the court the conversation did not happen.

Ten’s counsel Arthur Moses SC questioned van Onselen about the phone call, saying he was using a “fabricated” memory to “get away from the impact of the non-disparagement clause”.

When Mr Moses asked if he read the final redundancy document before signing it, Van Onselen replied: “No I did not”.

He earlier claimed his legitimacy as a journalist and media commentator was put at risk by the media company’s contract rules.

His barrister, Sue Chrysanthou SC, argued the non-disparagement clause was overbearing.

She said van Onselen would technically be in contempt of court if he was dissatisfied with his Paramount+ streaming service and wrote an email of complaint to the company.

“It puts him in breach if he says to his mates at the pub ‘I’m surprised Network Ten purchased that program, it’s not a good program’,” Ms Chrysanthou said.

“It is a lifetime order being sought against a person whose profession it is to talk, and only being able to speak about Network Ten for his entire life in glowing terms would affect his legitimacy and professionalism as a commentator and as an academic.”

Justice Hammerschlag rejected her assertion.

“Well then, why did he sign it? This is a contract case,” he said.

Ten sought a declaration that van Onselen had breached the contract and a permanent injunction restraining him from further breaching it.

Justice Hammscherlag did not grant the injunction, concluding “there is no realistic risk or possibility that Dr van Onselen will, in the light of my findings, breach” the contract again.

Ten made no claim for damages. It has until July 21 to submit a claim for costs to the court.


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