An ABC journalist who is being sued for defamation of an Australian special forces soldier has now been accused of verbally abusing a producer for 2GB Radio.
Heston Russell, who made headlines when he raised $15,000 for the veterans’ charity Swiss 8 by selling nude photos of himself on fans only, is suing ABC and two of its investigative reporters over stories published in 2020 and 2021.
On Wednesday, the national broadcaster sensationally drew up its final defense in its defamation battle, just two weeks before the matter goes to trial.
Mr Russell claimed stories by Mark Willacy and Josh Robertson in November 2021 that it appeared he was being investigated for shooting an unarmed prisoner.
On Thursday, 2GB’s Ben Fordham slammed the ABC for its stories about Mr Russell and claimed that Willacy ‘rang us off air one morning, screaming his head off about our coverage of this case’.
An ABC journalist who is being sued for defamation by former Australian Special Forces soldier Heston Russell (pictured) has now been charged with verbally abusing a radio producer.
‘His bosses later told us he was under stress. You can say that again,’ added Fordham.
ABC news director Justin Stevens was polite about Willacy’s alleged phone call during a Senate committee appearance on Thursday.
Liberal senator Holly Hughes said she understood ‘it was quite a tense phone call, quite an angry phone call with some shouting at this producer.’
‘Do you know about that incident?’ he questioned Mr. Stevens.
‘So, firstly, the chain of events about the specifics of the email investigation that ensued. I’m happy to follow up, and take notice,’ he replied.
‘I can say with confidence that 2GB is extremely interested in Mark Willacy’s journalism, relentlessly interested in and often attacking his journalism and its credibility.’
ABC journalist Mark Willacy (pictured) phoned a 2GB producer and was ‘shaking his head’
Heston Russell (pictured) in November 2021 Claimed stories by ABC journalists Mark Willacy and Josh Robertson appeared to suggest he was being investigated for shooting an unarmed prisoner.
The Fordham case used much plainer language to defend coverage of 2GB.
‘ABC looks stupid now,’ he said. “Legal cases against ex-special forces commandos are beating them up.
‘It was alleged that Heston and his unit November Platoon were involved in the execution of an Afghan prisoner.
‘The Federal Court has already ruled that Heston Russell defamed Heston Russell and journalists Mark Willacy and Josh Robertson to back up their claims – and it’s proving to be a disaster.
‘So let’s be clear: Mark Willacy and Josh Robertson and ABC made a total of four attempts to defend their story. All four are now abandoned.’
Fordham said ABC had ‘raised a white flag’ in the case.
The radio host explained, ‘The stories of Heston and the November platoon relied on the eyewitness account of a US Marine who appeared on ABC using a false name.
He detailed how the Marine, using the name ‘Josh’, said he was on a helicopter in Afghanistan in 2012 when he was called to pick up a group of Australian soldiers.
‘They had seven prisoners and Josh said there wasn’t enough room for them all. He then heard – not saw, but heard – a pop on the radio,’ Fordham said.
‘He assumed that Australian soldiers had shot a prisoner dead, and that is the basis of Mark Willacy’s story.’
Mr Heston’s lawyers wanted to know the true identity of ‘Josh’, but the ABC refused.
In a statement, the ABC said the Federal Court ruling had ‘forced the ABC to choose between protecting the identity of its source versus continuing to defend it’.
‘Well that’s complete and utter rubbish,’ said Fordham. ‘Cause here’s the facts: This Marine, Josh, has agreed to be interviewed on camera for ABC.
‘His face was not blurred, his voice was not altered. ABC reported when and where he was deployed to Afghanistan and the unit he served with.’
Mr Russell is asking the ABC (pictured) to remove the article and to pay more damages on top of court costs.
Judge Michael Leo slammed the broadcaster, saying: ‘If those responsible for publishing Josh’s images within the ABC thought there was substance in Josh’s fear of reprisal, they must have assumed that his potential attackers were somewhat anxious and lazy.’
Fordham said the lawsuit was becoming “extremely damaging” and “incredibly expensive” for ABC.
‘The legal costs will already be close to $1 million and taxpayers will pick up the bill,’ he said.
The 2GB breakfast host claimed Willacy tried to shut down the station to cover the Russell case.
‘We didn’t, we won’t and we won’t. And to try to justify their reporting, they made sloppy mistakes that caused more damage,’ he said.
‘It was a blow for the ABC. They have now raised the white flag, they have admitted defeat.
‘And now the only question is, how big is Heston Russell’s compensation going to be.’
Mr Russell (pictured) called on the ABC to apologize and take down the articles
In March 2022, ABC quietly updated and published two story corrections on the matter.
Mr Russell is asking the broadcaster to remove the articles and pay more damages on top of court costs.
The matter will be taken up in court again on Friday.
Daily Mail Australia has contacted Willacy and the ABC for comment.