ACA sued over ‘wrong accusation’
As A Current Affair went to air on August 4, 2017, a menacing chant of "dog, dog, dog" rose up within Long Bay prison.
The target was Bennet Schwartz, a former Rio Tinto employee who spent three and a half years in jail over his part in a sophisticated scheme to smuggle cocaine into Australia.
Schwartz was stabbed soon after the episode aired, his cellmate told a court in 2018.
The program described Schwartz as a "successful mining executive" who "turned police informant" after being caught tracking parcels in the lucrative operation.
But Schwartz says ACA got crucial facts wrong: he was not an executive at Rio Tinto, nor a police informant.
Now released on parole, he is suing Nine over the broadcast he says led to brutal assaults and a terrifying life behind bars.
His solicitor Mark Davis said the informant label put a target on Schwartz's head in "the most dangerous place on the planet to make such an accusation".
"Courtesy of A Current Affair's wrong accusation that he was a police informer, he was beaten, he was threatened, he lived in terror and ultimately he was stabbed," Mr Davis told NCA NewsWire.
"They traumatised him, all for a bit of light entertainment."
Nine intends to defend the lawsuit.
The events that unfolded in Long Bay prison were laid out by District Court Judge John Berman as he sentenced Schwartz in 2018.
He lashed Schwartz as having "no excuse whatsoever for his behaviour" against the backdrop of a life that involved private school, university study, a good job, a loving fiance, and a devoted mother who raised Schwartz after his father died when he was three.
Schwartz had even received a slap on the wrist for drug offences in 2013, deemed unlikely to reoffend, but failed to comprehend how lucky that was, the judge said.
But Judge Berman also blasted ACA's "dangerous and irresponsible" reporting, saying its description of Schwartz as a high-flying executive had led to a failed extortion attempt that prompted an assault "with either a fist or a sandwich press".
Even worse, the judge wrote, was the declaration from a "so-called expert" who said the fact police were able to access Schwartz's encrypted BlackBerry meant he must have been helping the police.
This labelling of Schwartz as a prison informant was "not only wrong but dangerous indeed", the judge said.
Federal police seized the phone after Schwartz's 2016 arrest and used it to conduct a sting on fellow smuggler Robert Zalapa, who went by the moniker "DrOctopuss88" and is now serving a nine-year prison sentence.
According to court documents filed by Schwartz, he was compelled under the Commonwealth Crimes Act to give police the password for the phone, and did not give evidence against any of his co-accused.
He is suing Nine for injurious falsehood, misleading and deceptive conduct, and defamation over the ACA broadcast and a promotional tweet.
The court documents say he was stabbed and beaten and suffered post-traumatic stress disorder, nightmares, panic attacks and migraines after the show.
Nine is accused of knowing it wasn't true to say Schwartz was an executive or an informant but publishing it anyway.
Schwartz also alleges the network bore "ill will" towards him and knew the false accusations would place him in "grave danger" of injury or assault.
There is a one-year limitation on the defamation claim over the broadcast, but Schwartz argues his imprisonment justifies an extension.
The matter is next in court on November 19.
Originally published as ACA sued over 'wrong accusation'