A Who’s Who of Australian media was dragged into a defamation court case about a sacked rugby league reporter who threatened to rip off a junior staffer’s head and defecate down his neck.
NSW District Court Judge Judith Gibson last week threw out a lawsuit by ex-Seven News journalist Josh Massoud after hearing evidence from former TV anchor Jim Wilson, Seven News boss Jason Morrison and former presenter Ryan Phelan.
Massoud had taken News Corp, Nine, KIIS FM, Radio 2GB and Fox Sports to court, variously claiming the news outlets had defamed him as a bully and someone who threatens and intimidates colleagues, in 16 articles published in 2018 and 2019.
The articles wrongly said Massoud threatened to ‘slit’ the throat of 18-year-old, fresh-out-of-school staffer Jack Warren or claimed that the reporter had made graphic threats to kill him.
Massoud called Mr Warren on May 1, 2018, after learning the young man had mistakenly tweeted a story from a network Twitter account about footballer Todd Carney leaving the North Queensland Cowboys.
The story was yet to run on air and Massoud wanted his colleague Mel McLaughlin to break it on the 6pm bulletin that night – but Mr Warren had tweeted the story hours early.
‘If you weren’t so young, I’d come up there and rip your head off and s**t down your throat,’ Massoud told Mr Warren.
Rugby league reporter Josh Massoud sued News Corp, Nine, KIIS FM, Fox Sport Australia and Radio 2GB for defamation, over reports which said he threatened to ‘slit’ the throat of a junior staffer. The lawsuit was thrown out last Thursday
Channel Seven news director Jason Morrison recalled how Josh Massoud was ‘on the warpath’ after a junior staff member tweeted a story about Todd Carney early. Senior producer Emma Dallimore couldn’t recal ever being spoken to as she was by Massoud that day
During the call with well-known news breaker, Mr Warren – the son of a Seven executive who was working in the regional Maroochydore office – apologised four times.
The confrontation came about after Massoud made four calls to colleagues in the Sydney and two Queensland newsrooms, to complain and find out who had posted the errant tweet.
Mr Warren was ‘inconsolable’ after copping Massoud’s tirade, according to evidence before the court. Massoud was suspended, investigated and then sacked, the judgment said.
The news quickly leaked and Massoud sued the media outlets that reported on it.
That culminated in several of his former colleagues including news director Morrison and direct manager Wilson giving evidence at the defamation trial recently.
‘Hideous’ day Massoud picked up the phone
The day of the ‘s*** down your neck’ incident itself was ‘hideous’, Mr Morrison, a former talkback radio presenter, told the District Court.
Sports editor Wilson recalled getting a call from Massoud, whose blood was boiling, saying: ‘Who the f*** has gone and compromised this, who’s put it online?’
Wilson recounted that Massoud said ‘whoever’s f***ing responsible for this I’m going to f***ing find them and nail them.’
Seven sports reporter Mel McLaughlin was meant to break the story on air at 6pm – but it was tweeted out by a junior staffer in the regional Sunshine Coast office
‘I just said, “just hold your horses, just take a deep breath, I’m the sports editor, let me handle it’.
Wilson observed his colleague Emma Dallimore rolling her eyes on the phone, and realised she was also on the phone to Massoud.
Massoud was ‘shouting abuse and swearing so much that she could not understand what he was talking about’, Ms Dallimore said, according to the judgment.
The call was placed in the stressful minutes prior to the 6pm bulletin.
Ms Dallimore later complained to Mr Morrison: ‘I don’t know what the hell is wrong with Josh, but he’s just been screaming at me on the phone.
‘That’s not okay. I’m sick of this s***. I don’t have time for this,’ the court heard.
Massoud told the court his conversation with Ms Dallimore ‘would have been on the line’ in the context of the daily ‘robust exchanges’ that went on at Channel Seven.
Massoud also called Luke McGarry, a sport reporter in Seven’s Sunshine Coast office, to try and figure out who had sent the errant tweet.
In court, Massoud admitted it was ‘possible’ he said words to Mr McGarry to the effect of ‘some f***ing c*** as put this on social media’.
He likewise admitted to saying words along the lines of ‘someone had better be in the f***ing Centrelink queue tomorrow; that’s all I can say.’
(Massoud admitted at trial that his conversation with Mr McGarry ‘wasn’t appropriate’.)
Massoud then placed his famous call to Mr Warren.
When Mr Morrison learned of what happened with the young man, he decided something needed to be done.
‘People were just sick of the carry on, sick of the explosive temper,’ he said. Massoud was told he could bring a lawyer to his meeting with Human Resources.
Former Seven anchor and Radio 2GB host Jim Wilson (left) was the sports editor at the time of the incident. Queensland reporter Luke McGarry (right) received a call from Massoud as he tried to sleuth out who had posted the tweet
The court heard extensive detail about the drama in Channel Seven’s Sydney newsroom (above) the day of Massoud’s phone call
Cabbie complaints and ‘bullying’
The court heard Massoud admitted his workplace behaviour was at times ‘appalling’- but claimed it wasn’t bullying, and that he was driven by his passion for the job.
He argued in a busy and stressful newsroom, there was a greater degree of tolerance for bad behaviour, swearing and arguments among colleagues.
However, Judge Gibson found that there was ‘abundant evidence’ of Massoud bullying.
‘He would shout, use abuse and bad language and, if he did not get what he wanted, he would threaten to complain,’ the judgment said.
The judge described his conduct toward Ms Dallimore as a ‘classic example of workplace bullying’.
Likewise, Judge Gibson found the way the footy reporter spoke to Mr McGarry was intimidating.
Further workplace incidents were detailed from Massoud’s time at the Telegraph, including run-ins with the company’s taxi contractor, Legion Cabs.
There were complaints about Massoud eating a burger in the back of a cab, dropping food everywhere and telling the driver ‘we are a big client’ and he shouldn’t complain about it.
In his resignation letter from the Telegraph’s parent company, the court also heard Massoud admitted to at times ‘appalling’ behaviour on the office floor.
‘I have been counselled about this many times, but cannot stop because there’s been no incentive to stop.
‘I have not been given anything extra. I have not been rewarded.’
The court heard evidence from a senior News Corp staffer Tim Morrissey that Massoud’s departure was like a dark cloud lifting and the sunshine coming out.
‘The mood across the entire department changed almost overnight,’ Mr Morrisey said.
‘Slitting’ a throat versus ‘ripping’ a head off
The other major plank of Massoud’s defamation case was whether he had actually ‘threatened’ to do anything to Mr Warren, who was some two decades his junior.
At trial, Massoud and barrister Tom Molomby SC argued that saying he would ‘rip’ off someone’s head was absurd, unreal and impossible.
Former Seven presenter Ryan Phelan (right) gave evidence that Massoud had a good reputation as a journalist. The judge accepted Massoud had a reputation as a talented and experienced journalist
But they contended that Massoud saying he would ‘slit’ the boy’s throat, as the outlets wrongly reported Massoud made, was ‘real, violent and lethal’.
The judge disagreed. ‘It is a distinction without a difference,’ she said.
Likewise, Massoud’s lawyer argued the condition Massoud put on his comment comment – ‘if you weren’t so young’ – cancelled out the threat to rip off Mr Warren’s head and ‘s***’ down his neck.
Again, the judge disagreed. ‘The purpose of the threat is to provoke fear.’
Judge Gibson upheld the media organisations’ defences of justification and contextual truth and found Massoud had failed on all claims.
He has been ordered to pay the defendants’ legal costs – which will be determined at a later date.