Videos that portrayed a former NSW deputy prime minister as a corrupt crook and mocked his Italian heritage led him to consider self-harm and ultimately forced him out of politics, a court has heard.
John Barilaro is suing Google, the owner of YouTube, after refusing to remove videos from the platform that he calls defamatory.
The videos, titled Bruz and Secret Dictatorship, were created in 2020 by comedian and popular political commentator Jordan Shanks, who is attracting a huge following on his Friendlyjordies social media accounts.
Through his lawyer, Mr Shanks last year apologized to Mr Barilaro for the “hurt” suffered by the offensive videos.
As part of the settlement agreement reached, Mr. Shanks also paid Mr. Barilaro $100,000 in legal costs and made edits to the two videos that remain on YouTube.
Google never reached a settlement agreement and launched numerous defenses to claim that it was wrong to allow the videos to be posted on YouTube.
Most of those defenses were dropped last week, and the tech giant now says the videos were kept online because they were in the public interest.
At the start of a Federal Court hearing in Sydney on Monday, Mr Barilaro’s lawyer, Sue Chrysanthou SC, said the case now focused on how much her client should receive in damages.
“Google facilitated a despicable and despicably racist smear campaign against John Barilaro which resulted in his ousting from public office,” Ms Chrystanthou told the court.
“Mr. Shanks edited the videos, not Google, and their conduct is incomprehensible and should not be excused by this court.”
The court viewed the Bruz video, in which Mr. Barilaro was compared to Nintendo’s much-loved character Mario, and Mr. Shanks narrates in an Italian accent.
In the video, Mr Barilaro is criticized for his response to the bushfires, the management of national parks, the handling of water corruption allegations and the provision of government subsidies to companies linked to the Liberal and National parties.
“Conman”, “moron”, “fat”, “dumb” and “dumb” were among the words to describe Mr. Barilaro in the video, which was played in front of Federal Court Judge Steven Rares.
Ms Chrysanthou told the court that the videos were ‘dripping with hate and nastiness’ and that Google was making money from the videos posted on YouTube.
“It’s hard to see how Google determined that this video was not filled with racial slurs and stereotypes and extremely insulting and offensive language,” she said.
“Mr. Shanks had a hatred of my client, it would be obvious to anyone and the doubt had to be obvious to Google.
“We cannot understand how any rational person could look at this material and think it is okay to leave it online, especially given the policies that Google claims to follow.”
The court heard Google tried to justify leaving the videos online by saying they contained numerous references to mainstream media stories about Mr Barilaro’s performance in office.
“Google did not Google search my client and search for these articles that are freely available … to actually read them,” Ms. Chrystanthou said.
“If they had even bothered to look at the articles that appear on this video, they would have seen that they do not support the outrageous allegations made about my client.”
“It is one thing to comment or criticize a person exercising public office and to raise questions about their honesty or credibility in relation to decisions. It’s another to constantly link that conduct or alleged conduct to a person’s ethnicity in the way that Mr. Shanks has chosen to do in this video.
Ms Chrystanthou told the court that Google had not apologized to Mr Barilaro and wanted to waste its time and money dragging out the proceedings in the hope that it would drop the lawsuit.
“It’s an individual against a company worth billions and billions of dollars,” she said.
“The posts caused harm to my client… it’s clear when you look at this hate mail that it was caused by the posts as there are references to Bruz, corrupt Mario, green pipe loving Gestapo Goomba stomping the Italian sausage… that’s the kind of hate and racist attack incited by these videos that Google publishes, for which Google provides a forum to hundreds of thousands of viewers, from which Google makes money.
Supporters of Mr Barilaro lined up to testify about his personality after Ms Chrystanthou’s opening speech at the hearing.
Among them was Canberra Raiders NRL manager Ricky Stuart, who said he had known Mr Barilaro for 20 years from their stay in the Queanbeyan area.
“John was very, very generous with his time…he was a very caring person,” Mr Stuart told the court.
“I have always found in John a very devoted family man.”
Mr Barilaro’s former deputy chief of staff, Jeff McCormack, who was investigated by the National Party and cleared of any wrongdoing over allegations he was involved in a drill the stacking of branches that led right-wing extremists to infiltrate the youth wing of the party, has also given evidence.
“I think John was certainly used to dealing with a bit of flack on the internet, but I think some of the comments, particularly those around his daughter and threats of sexual and physical violence, were ones he addressed with some genuine and real concern,” Mr. McCormack told the court.
“John was basically at the physical point where he was contemplating self-harm.”
Mr Barilaro’s friend and former colleague, Deputy Leader of NSW Nationals and Government Minister Bronnie Taylor, said she had also become concerned about talk of self-harm.
“He told me in private conversations that he thought about hurting himself and actually thought about how he could do it,” Ms Taylor said.
Former social media manager Rory Cunningham said Mr Barilaro’s social media accounts were inundated with thousands of messages after the Friendlyjordies videos were posted.
“I was up all night hiding comments…I know John was having trouble sleeping at the time…I was doing my best to document and delete them so John wouldn’t see them “, he told the court.
The hearing continues on Tuesday, when Mr. Barilaro is due to testify.
Mental health support