Australian media’s A Who’s Who was dragged into a defamation lawsuit over a fired rugby league reporter who threatened to rip off a junior staffer’s head and defecate on his neck.
NSW District Court Judge Judith Gibson dismissed a lawsuit from ex-Seven News journalist Josh Massoud last week after hearing evidence from former TV host Jim Wilson, Seven News boss Jason Morrison and former host Ryan Phelan.
Massoud had sued News Corp, Nine, KIIS FM, Radio 2GB and Fox Sports, alleging that the news outlets had defamed him as a bully and someone who threatens and intimidates colleagues, in 16 articles published in 2018 and 2019.
The articles falsely stated that Massoud threatened to slit the throat of 18-year-old freshman Jack Warren or claimed that the reporter had made graphic threats to kill him.
Massoud called Warren on May 1, 2018, after learning that the young man accidentally tweeted a story from a network Twitter account about Todd Carney leaving the North Queensland Cowboys.
The story had yet to air, and Massoud wanted his colleague Mel McLaughlin to break it into the 6:00 p.m. bulletin that night – but Mr. Warren had tweeted the story hours early.
“If you weren’t so young, I’d come up and rip your head off and shove it down your throat,” Massoud told Mr. Warren.
Rugby league reporter Josh Massoud has sued News Corp, Nine, KIIS FM, Fox Sport Australia and Radio 2GB for defamation over reports of threatening to ‘slit’ a junior staffer’s throat. The lawsuit was dropped last Thursday
Channel Seven news director Jason Morrison recalled how Josh Massoud was “on the warpath” after a junior staff member tweeted a story about Todd Carney early on. Senior producer Emma Dallimore couldn’t remember ever being spoken to by Massoud that day
During the conversation with the well-known news breaker, Mr Warren – the son of a Seven executive who worked at the regional office in Maroochydore – apologized four times.
The confrontation came about after Massoud called colleagues in the newsrooms in Sydney and two in Queensland four times to complain and the detective who posted the erroneous tweet.
Mr Warren was “inconsolable” after dealing with Massoud’s tirade, evidence in court shows. Massoud was suspended, investigated and subsequently fired, the verdict said.
The news quickly leaked and Massoud sued the media who reported about it.
That culminated in several of his former colleagues, including news director Morrison and direct manager Wilson, recently testifying at the defamation trial.
‘Horrible’ day Massoud answered the phone
The day of the “s*** down your neck” incident itself was “horrific,” Mr Morrison, a former talkback radio host, told the court.
Sports editor Wilson recalled getting a call from Massoud, whose blood was boiling, saying, ‘Who the hell went and compromised this, who put it online?’
Wilson said Massoud said ‘whoever the hell is responsible for this, I’m going to find the fuck and get them.’
Seven sports reporter Mel McLaughlin was supposed to broadcast the story at 6 p.m., but it was tweeted by a junior employee of the Sunshine Coast regional office.
“I just said, ‘Hold your horses, take a deep breath, I’m the sports editor, let me handle it’.
Wilson saw his colleague Emma Dallimore roll her eyes on the phone and realized she was also on the phone with Massoud.
Massoud yelled “insultingly and swore so much that she didn’t understand what he was talking about,” Ms Dallimore said according to the verdict.
The call was posted in the stressful minutes leading up to the 6:00 p.m. bulletin.
Mrs. Dallimore later complained to Mr. Morrison, “I don’t know what the hell is going on with Josh, but he was just yelling at me on the phone.
“That’s not okay. I’m sick of this shit. I don’t have time for this,” the court heard.
(Massoud told the court his conversation with Ms. Dallimore would have been “on the line” in the context of the daily “robust exchanges” that took place on Channel Seven.)
Massoud also called Luke McGarry, a sports reporter in Seven’s Sunshine Coast office, to try and figure out who sent the errant tweet.
In court, Massoud admitted it was “possible” that he said words to Mr McGarry along the lines of “a goddamn bastard who put this on social media.”
He also admitted to saying words along the lines of ‘someone better queue up at Centrelink tomorrow; That’s all I can say.’
(Massoud admitted at trial that his conversation with Mr McGarry was “inappropriate.”)
Massoud then made his famous phone call to Mr. Warren.
When Mr. Morrison heard what had happened to the young man, he decided something had to be done.
“People were just sick of the hassle, sick of the explosive mood,” he said. Massoud was told he could bring a lawyer to his meeting with Human Resources.
Former Seven anchor and Radio 2GB presenter Jim Wilson (left) was the sports editor at the time of the incident. Queensland reporter Luke McGarry (right) got a call from Massoud while trying to figure out who posted the tweet
The court heard extensive details of the drama in Channel Seven’s Sydney newsroom (above) on the day of Massoud’s phone call
Complaints from taxi drivers and ‘bullying’
The court heard Massoud admit that his behavior in the workplace was “terrible” at times, but claimed it wasn’t bullying and that he was driven by his passion for the job.
He argued in a crowded and stressful newsroom, there was a greater degree of tolerance for bad behavior, swearing and arguing among colleagues.
Judge Gibson, however, found that there was “abundant evidence” of Massoud bullying.
“He would yell, curse and use foul language and if he didn’t get what he wanted, he threatened to sue,” the verdict read.
The judge described his behavior towards Ms Dallimore as a ‘classic example of bullying at work’.
Likewise, Judge Gibson found the way the footy reporter spoke to Mr McGarry intimidating.
Further workplace incidents were detailed from Massoud’s time at the Telegraph, including meetings with the company’s taxi contractor, Legion Cabs.
There were complaints about Massoud eating a hamburger in the back of a taxi, dropping food everywhere and telling the driver ‘we’re a big customer’ and that he shouldn’t complain about that.
In its letter of resignation from the Telegraph’s parent company, the court also learned that Massoud had admitted “appalling” behavior on the office floor at times.
“I’ve been advised on this many times, but I can’t stop because there’s been no reason to stop.
‘I didn’t get anything extra. I’m not rewarded.’
The court heard evidence from senior News Corp staffer Tim Morrissey that Massoud’s departure was like a dark cloud lifting and the sun coming out.
‘The mood in the whole department changed almost overnight,’ said Mr Morrisey.
Slitting a Throat vs. ‘Riding’ a Head Off
The other important point of Massoud’s defamation case was whether he had “threatened” to do anything at all to Mr. Warren, who was some twenty years his junior.
During the trial, Massoud and attorney Tom Molomby SC argued that it was absurd, unreal and impossible to say that he would “jump off” someone’s head.
Former Seven presenter Ryan Phelan (right) indicated that Massoud had a good reputation as a journalist. The judge acknowledged that Massoud had a reputation as a talented and experienced journalist
But they claimed that Massoud’s saying he would “slit the boy’s throat,” as the media falsely claimed Massoud had done, was “real, violent and deadly.”
The judge disagreed. “It’s a distinction without a difference,” she said.
Similarly, Massoud’s lawyer argued that the condition Massoud put on his comment — “if you weren’t so young” — nullified the threat of ripping off Mr. Warren’s head and “fuck” his neck.
Again, the judge disagreed. “The purpose of the threat is to create fear.”
Judge Gibson upheld the media organizations’ defense of justification and contextual truth and found that Massoud had failed on all claims.
He has been ordered to pay the defendants’ legal costs – to be determined at a later date.