A banker with Australia’s Commonwealth Bank (CBA) has been awarded AU$300,000 ($216,500/€199,400) – one of the biggest defamation payouts in Australia this year – after being subjected to two years of harassment from a self-styled consumer advocate.
Brendan French is head of Consumer Relations for CBA. His defamer is Michael Fraser, who has styled himself as ‘The Arbitrator’; a champion of consumer rights who sets out to confront banks, utility providers and other big businesses over their treatment of customers.
Fraser’s targeting of French began in late 2012, when he demanded a meeting with the executive but did not specify what he wanted to discuss at the meeting.
French declined, and Fraser subsequently bombarded him with hundreds of emails and phone calls – sometimes five times a day. He also called French’s colleagues, friends and family.
According to NSW Supreme Court judge Lucy McCallum, the messages contained, ‘thinly-veiled threats evidently motivated by homophobia and other senseless vitriol.’
‘I can break you mentally,’ Mr Fraser wrote in one email. ‘I will come for you, and I will prevail.’
In another, he wrote, ‘How many times per week do you dream about me? If I am not on your mind outside of your work hours, then I am not doing my job properly.’
Then, in May 2014, Fraser sent an email to 500 CBA staff which outed French as gay and identified his partner. It also wrongfully said that French had awarded his partner a CBA contract.
Fraser posted defamatory articles on his website alleging that French was corrupt and bullied his staff. French said that the allegations had made him feel ‘physically sick.’
‘Mr Fraser’s conduct had plainly become that of a stalker,’ said Justice McCallum, who noted that French had an ‘outstanding reputation for honesty and integrity’ but was left ‘deeply humiliated’ without ‘the smallest suggestion of any actual wrong-doing on [his] part.’
In her summing up, McCullum says that French became the ‘target of a senseless vendetta founded in madness’ and was the victim of a ‘wide-reaching and wholly unfounded’ public attack, reports Australia Financial Review.
She said that Fraser had developed an obsessive fixation with trying to persuade French to meet him, and resorted to threatening and intimidating behaviour in order to try and achieve this aim.
Fraser had initially insisted that his accusations against French were true, but later admitted that he had defamed Dr French without justification.
He conceded that he had behaved in an ‘unprofessional and inappropriate’ manner, but that he planned to continue his consumer rights campaigning and would be appealing.
‘I intend to appeal several findings of mixed fact and law made by her Honour, McCallum J, which her Honour reached solely in reliance on the Plaintiff’s submissions.’
According to AFR, French has not yet decided whether to enforce the AU$300,000 ($216,500/€199,400) award against his defamer, who reportedly has no assets.
Commonwealth Bank Australia has been approached for comment.