The untimely death of a renowned defamation barrister who advised and defended the ABC has highlighted the number of actions the broadcaster has faced.

Sydney barrister Alexander “Sandy” Dawson SC died last month at the age of 50 after suffering brain cancer.

A renowned defamation specialist, he was known for his sharp intellect and for being a brilliant strategist and tactician, as well as having a great sense of humour.

His sister, fellow barrister Katrina Dawson, was killed during the Lindt Cafe siege in 2014.

As well as providing advice for ABC programmes like Four Corners, Sandy Dawson SC represented the ABC in, for example, defamation proceedings in 2021 brought by NSW Racing boss Peter V’landys over a story relating to animal cruelty.

The ABC won the case.

Read about the V'Landys defamation case

Mr Dawson was also lead counsel for Nine Entertainment in the defamation fight with Ben Roberts-Smith.

Read an ABC tribute

In a special tribute on the 7.30 programme, presenter Sarah Ferguson called him a “loved and admired friend of the ABC” who had defended her own journalism brilliantly.

Watch the short 7.30 tribute

The unfortunate death served to remind audiences of the outrageous level of legal action the public broadcaster is required to face in a country with some of the world’s most draconian defamation laws.

As well as the celebrated failure of former Attorney General Christian Porter to sue the ABC in recent times, there are all too many examples of cases brought by figures who often describe themselves as champions of free speech.

Much of the following list has been published by the Crikey news website.

  • Pauline Hanson: Sued the ABC when Triple J played the Pauline Pantsdown song I’m a Backdoor Man. The song accused her of being a homosexual and a generally unsavoury character, and the court ordered that it not be played again.
  • Joh Bjelke-Petersen: The infamous Queensland premier sued the ABC over allegations of corruption and rorts in his government. We all know what followed.
  • John Gorton: The former Liberal prime minister sued the ABC over a This Day Tonight interview by Richard Carleton in which it was implied that Gorton had instructed Malcolm Fraser to issue a false denial of a story that he knew to be true.
  • Stephen Conroy: The Labor senator and former communications minister once sued 774 ABC Melbourne morning presenter Jon Faine (as Faine revealed on radio in 2010).
  • Neville Wran: Sued the ABC in the early ’80s over allegations he had attempted to interfere with the natural course of justice.
  • John Elliott: sued the ABC and former Victorian Labor Minister Steve Crabb over claims the NCA was investigating him shortly before the 1990 federal election. He also sued Paul Keating but this was settled in another famous Kirribilli pact that involved an FIRB decision. 
  • David Lange: The former NZ prime Minister sued the ABC over a Four Corners report.
  • Andrew Laming: Sued star Four Corners reporter Louise Milligan over tweets she made.
  • Ron Clarke: The Olympic champion sued the ABC’s 7.30 Report over a report which alleged he was building a sports complex on a toxic dump. He asked for a $75,000 settlement which the ABC refused and he was awarded more than $1 million by a jury. 
  • Heston Russell: who served in the Australian Defence Force from 2003 to 2019, sued the ABC over an article regarding a claimed criminal investigation into a platoon serving in Afghanistan in 2012.
  • Peter Blunden: The Herald Sun editor took out a Supreme Court writ against ABC Radio’s Jon Faine in 1999 but it was quickly withdrawn. 
  • Vincenzo Bellino: The Sicilian mogul in Brisbane’s Fortitude Valley sued Chris Masters and the ABC for 13 years after The Moonlight State which ended up costing the ABC more than $600,000 to defend even though they won. 
  • Michael Roux: The former WorkCover boss in Victoria sued the ABC in a case that cost $2 million and lasted for a record 69 days but was eventually settled with two apologies that were read out in court and at the beginning of The 7.30 Report. 
  • The Waterhouse family: (Bill, Robbie and Gai) have variously sued the ABC, 2GB and The Sunday Herald Sun. 
  • Mick Gatto: Tried to sue the ABC for defamation but failed when the High Court refused to hear his case.