The former attorney general, Christian Porter, is acting for underworld figure Mick Gatto in a bid for a high court appeal in his defamation case against the ABC.
Gatto sued the public broadcaster and reporters Nino Bucci, who now works for Guardian Australia, and Sarah Farnsworth over an article he says falsely accused him of threatening to kill the gangland lawyer and police informant, Nicola Gobbo.
The Victorian supreme court rejected Gatto’s claim the article implied he is a hitman and murderer, prompting an unsuccessful appeal to the Victorian court of appeal on whether it conveyed the meaning he threatened to kill Gobbo.
In May, Gatto applied to the high court for special leave to appeal the decision. According to submissions dated 11 May, filed with the court and seen by Guardian Australia, he is represented by barristers Guy Reynolds, Porter, and Daniel Ward.
Barristers in Australia are subject to the cab rank rule, meaning they are prohibited from rejecting a case except in limited circumstances, guaranteeing clients pick their counsel, not the other way around.
In February Guardian Australia reported that Porter, who retired from politics at the 2022 election, had created two new private companies, Henley Stirling Lawyers Pty Ltd and Henley Stirling Consultants Pty Ltd, to prepare for life after politics.
Porter declared he was the sole director of both business, set up to conduct a legal practice after the election and pursue “possible future writing ventures”.
Gatto’s counsel are seeking to re-argue that the article conveyed meanings including that Gatto threatened to kill police, is one of Australia’s most violent criminals and has been proven to have organised murders in the past.
They argued that the appeal court applied the “wrong standard of review” and should not have applied the “single meaning rule” when determining what the article conveyed.
Gatto’s lawyers complained that although the news story “purports to be a report of court proceedings” it contains a “very large number of hearsay statements”.
“For example, the publication states eight times (including in the heading) that ‘gangland figure Mick Gatto threatened to kill police informer 3838, court told’.”
Given that, it was “impossible to see how the VCA could have held that this imputation was not conveyed”, they said.
The ABC is opposing Gatto’s bid for special leave to appeal.
In its submissions, the ABC said Gatto is asking the high court to “substitute its own decision in circumstances where the result below is neither anomalous nor unjust”.
The ABC argued that the appeal court had applied the correct standard of review, which begins with “identification of error”. It rejected the claim it had used the standard of whether a meaning is “reasonably open”.
In reply submissions, Gatto’s lawyers said the appeal court’s judgment was “perfunctory” in the way it dealt with the six meanings, with “hardly a word of the publication” referred to.
They called on the high court to hear the case, arguing the full federal court and Victorian appeal court have differed on the correct standard for review.
In March 2021, Porter named himself as the person at the centre of an ABC report which reported allegations of a 1988 rape against an unnamed cabinet minister, levelled by a woman who had since died.
Porter vehemently denied the allegations, and launched defamation action against the ABC. He discontinued the case in May 2021. The ABC agreed to add an editor’s note on its story saying it “regretted” that some readers had “misinterpreted” the article “as an accusation of guilt against Mr Porter”.
Guardian Australia contacted Porter for comment.