Van Onselen ‘has a megaphone and will use it’, Ten says

Neve Brissenden |

Former Network 10 political editor Peter van Onselen is at risk of using his media “megaphone” to disparage his former employer again, network lawyers say.

“This is not an even-tempered individual, he has a megaphone and he thinks he can use it,” barrister Arthur Moses SC told the NSW Supreme Court on Thursday.

An email sent to the network by Dr van Onselen said he “reserves (his) right as a whistleblower to instigate a corporate campaign (against 10)”.

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

The network is suing the political commentator and academic for a scathing column 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 the court from the Italian Amalfi coast, Dr 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 Network 10 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’,” he said on Thursday.

“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.

Mr Moses questioned the commentator 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, Dr Van Onselen replied: “No I did not”. 

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

His high-profile lawyer, Sue Chrysanthou SC, argued the non-disparagement clause was overbearing.

She said the commentator 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 10 purchased that program, it’s not a good program’,” Ms Chrysanthou told the court.

“It is a lifetime order being sought against a person whose profession it is to talk, and only being able to speak about Network 10 for his entire life in glowing terms would affect his legitimacy and professionalism as a commentator and as an academic.”

Justice David Hammerschlag rejected her assertion.

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

A judgment day has not been set down and Justice Hammerschlag warned it could take up to six weeks.

Mr Moses said there was no rush for judgment from either side and that he understood Dr van Onselen “has no intention of disparaging or even thinking about Channel 10 while he’s on the Amalfi Coast”.