How a TV giant almost broke one of Queensland's richest men
WHEN Denis Wagner watched a 60 Minutes expose on the deadly 2011 Grantham floods he was gutted.
As one of Queensland's richest men, it takes a lot to shake the Toowoomba business owner but Channel Nine's description of his family causing the deaths of 12 people - including a two-year-old girl - was just too much.
"It's hard to describe," Mr Wagner said of the 2015 feature titled The Missing Hour, by journalists Nick Cater and Michael Usher.
"I was gutted and embarrassed, humiliated in some respects."
The program aired in May 2015, giving viewers the impression that Denis and his brothers John, Neill and Joe were responsible for the killer floods.
It claimed the collapse of a Lockyer Valley quarry wall, owned by the Wagner family, resulted in the "man-made catastrophe" that saw a huge wave of water smash through the town.
Some six months after the broadcast, a commission of inquiry found the Wagners' quarry "played no role in the floods".
"There were only two relevant man-made structures," Commissioner Walter Sofronoff said in his report.
"One was the quarry pit and the associated embankment and the second (was) the railway embankment that has been there for about 100 years,"
"Both had insignificant evident effect, measurable effects but insignificant, that is to say if they weren't there nothing would have been different.
"I found that the quarry did not play any role in the flood."
Denis and his brothers are suing Mr Cater and Nine, TCN Channel Nine, Queensland Television, WIN Television Queensland, Nine MSN, where the material was broadcast, for defamation.
Their trial in Brisbane Supreme Court started on Monday before a four-person jury but was aborted and a new jury had to be sworn in.
The jury watched the film, which did not expressly blame Denis and his brothers for the tragedy.
Barrister for the Wagners, Tom Blackburn, described the 60 Minutes report as giving viewers the impression the Wagners caused the flood.
Mr Blackburn said it implied the men tried to cover up their involvement and that they were "suspicious and disgraceful" because they refused a 60 Minutes request for them to appear or comment.
Mr Blackburn said the report defamed the family "in an insinuating and sly way" and that it presented the brothers as "selfish blokes from the big end of town".
He said the brothers took issue with repeated statements throughout the program that claimed the flood was an act of God turned deadly due to their failings.
"The viewer knows this is the Wagners' quarry," Mr Blackburn told the jury.
"They owned it at the time. They operated it."
Nine's barrister Rob Anderson told the jury that the program did not defame the Wagners, describing the brothers as being "paranoid" about what it conveyed to the audience.
"The plaintiffs have viewed this program through their own eyes," Mr Anderson said.
"Perhaps they're being precious or paranoid.
"The reality is the program is about the locals' accounts of the flood event (that) weren't being heard."
The jury came to its verdicts extremely fast on Friday, ruling in the Wagners' favour.
The trial is now in the damages phase, meaning Justice Peter Applegarth is hearing from the brothers and from Mr Cater and Nine and its associated entities about how much damages he should award.
Taking the stand first on Friday was Denis.
He was polite, quietly spoken and stoic throughout the questioning, but he was also extremely upfront when asked about the trauma he felt watching the report.
He described the journalists as acting like "judge and executioner".
"I feel cranky about it - you get disillusioned with the journalists and the media profession," he said.
"I am frustrated because the basis of their report was proven to be incorrect.
"It caused me some distress.
"It was a pretty tough time.
"Knowing what they said wasn't factual or truthful - that is devastating."
Friday's jury decision was the second defamation win for the Wagners on this matter, coming almost one year to the day after 2GB, 4BC and controversial broadcaster Alan Jones were ordered to pay them $3.7million in damages and costs.
Jones was "wilfully blind to the truth" when he repeatedly said the family was responsible for the flood deaths, Justice Peter Flanagan said in his judgment.
Justice Flanagan said Jones engaged in "unjustifiable conduct" and "was motivated by a desire to injure" the Wagners' reputations.
"Mr Jones agreed that some of the criticism he levelled against the plaintiffs was very savage, particularly in relation to Grantham," he said.
"The tone of the matters and their content are self-evidently vicious and spiteful.
"In light of Mr Jones' wilful blindness to the truth or falsity of the imputations conveyed, his conduct in using such language was unjustifiable."
The Wagners' case against Channel Nine will continue on a date to be decided. - NewsRegional