The talkback host Alan Jones has told the Brisbane supreme court he did not put allegations of wrongdoing to the Toowoomba-based Wagner family before he broadcast them because “they would not speak to me”.
Jones entered the witness box on Thursday to give evidence in the judge-only defamation trial.
The Wagner brothers are suing the outspoken talkback host, Harbour Radio, 4BC and journalist Nick Cater over 32 broadcasts in 2014 and 2015.
John, Denis, Neill and Joe Wagner allege they were accused of the deaths of 12 people in the town of Grantham during the 2011 floods, when one of the walls of the Lockyer Valley quarry they owned collapsed. They claim they were also subjected to constant abuse, including accusations of a high-level cover-up with politicians, corruption and intimidation relating to their Wellcamp airport.
Jones raised his voice under cross examination by Tom Blackburn SC, who acts for the Wagner family. Blackburn suggested to Jones he had not sought to put “grave allegations” to the Wagners nor sought a response before broadcasting.
Jones said a producer had contacted the Wagner families, through a public relations company, and asked them to appear on his show, but that they had not been confronted with the substance of the allegations.
“For goodness sake, I’ve got a lot to do in a day, I won’t waste time making phone calls to people who say ‘you are blackballed, I won’t speak to you’,” Jones said.
Jones said his criticisms of the Wagner family were “savage” but were accurate and justified.
Jones spent most of the morning giving evidence by retelling emotional stories about many of the people who died at Grantham. He was asked several times by justice Peter Flanagan to return his evidence to the point of the questions. At one point Jones paused and appeared to choke back tears speaking about a mother who lost her grip on her one-year-old daughter when the wall of water gushed through the town.
“One of the reasons I have tried to continue to get answers … is that these people have no answers,” he said.
The radio broadcaster said he had contact with two people from the region in the days following the tragedy.
Jones said he then put a call out on-air to people who might have similar stories.
“There was a whole heap of people who got in touch with me,” he said.
Jones gave evidence they all said the same thing: the wall – or bund – around the quarry was man-made.
“The Wagners kept on saying there was no bund … whereas every eyewitness gave evidence that they’d seen this bund going up and up and up,” he told the court.
Jones said he became a “pivotal point” for people in the area who did not feel they were being heard.
“The one thing that hurt the most was that they weren’t believed,” he said.
When asked by his barrister, Robert Anderson QC, if the comments he made about the family on air were “opinions honestly held” by him, Jones said they were.
The trial continues.
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