A former Fairfax reporter and foreign policy advisor to the Prime Minister says he did not write that political donor Chau Chak Wing had bribed an UN official, only that was he suspected of involvement in the matter.
Mr Chau, who has donated money to both the Liberal and Labor parties, is suing John Garnaut and Fairfax Media for defamation over an article published online in October 2015.
Mr Chau claims the article damaged his reputation by imputing that he bribed or conspired to bribe the former UN General Assembly president John Ashe.
Giving evidence in court on Thursday, Mr Garnaut said he wrote the article carefully and precisely to say the allegations of bribery were possible, not fact.
“I thought it was probably true but not for me to play prosecutor, judge and jury,” he said.
Mr Garnaut said Mr Chau’s involvement in alleged UN bribery came to his attention through a US Department of Justice indictment, which charged several people.
However, Mr Chau’s barrister Bruce McClintock SC claimed the document contained no allegations against his client.
“There are implicit allegations,” Mr Garnaut replied.
Mr Garnaut said he contacted Jim Zheng who had been his “long-running conduit” to Mr Chau over the years and phoned the businessman’s daughter Winky Chow in an attempt to getting Mr Chau’s side of the story.
He said she told him the whole thing was a misunderstanding and that they would be issuing a statement to clarify things.
Mr Garnaut’s barrister previously said no explanation ever came.
Mr McClintock asked the former reporter why, in an email, he referred to Mr Chau saying “He’s f***ed”.
“My meaning was he’s in trouble.” Mr Garnaut said. “Trouble does not meant guilt, means he’s involved,”
Mr Garnaut said conversations with two confidential sources — one of whom has now gone on the record — led him to believe that Mr Chau was involved.
He told the court the source, Roger Uren, a former Office of National Assessments employee, was also the husband of Sheri Yan, one of the people arrested in connection to alleged bribery of Mr Ashe.
Mr Garnaut said Mr Uren told him the alleged payment to Mr Ashe was not a bribe but a speaking fee — worth $200,000 — and that it had come from Mr Chau.
‘A pretty serious mistake’
Mr Garnaut said that alleged bribe was to do with Mr Ashe’s attendance at a summit at a resort owned by Mr Chau.
Mr Garnaut said after the Ashe story broke, he went to Mr Chau’s company website but the website links to the summit were dead.
He said he was told the website had been “scrubbed” to remove references to the summit.
Mr McClintock said nothing had been removed from his client’s website, and it was still there now.
“That’s news to me,” Mr Garnaut replied.
Justice Wigney asked if he might have been mistaken.
“I’m turning that over in my mind, I need to make further inquiries,” Mr Garnaut replied.
“A pretty serious mistake to make,” Mr McClintock said. “I think it could be material, yes,” Mr Garnaut replied.
The hearing continues.