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Mehreen Faruqi rejects request by far-right commentator Lauren Southern to apologise for tweet

Daniel Hurst
·7-min read
<span>Photograph: Sam Mooy/Getty Images</span>
Photograph: Sam Mooy/Getty Images

The Greens senator Mehreen Faruqi has rebuffed a request from the Sky News Australia contributor Lauren Southern to remove and apologise for a tweet that the rightwing commentator’s lawyers have argued is “false and defamatory”.

Guardian Australia has seen correspondence between legal representatives for Southern and Faruqi that stems from an exchange at a hearing of the Senate’s inquiry into media diversity in Canberra last month.

At issue are not the questions posed by Faruqi to News Corp executives about Southern’s alleged promotion of the “great replacement” theory – an exchange that is covered by parliamentary privilege – but the wording the senator used in a tweet when she retweeted video of the exchange.

Faruqi’s legal representatives said in a letter on Monday that the New South Wales senator took her public duties “very seriously” and would continue to speak out against what she saw as any “racist rhetoric and race-baiting commentary and behaviour engaged in by Ms Southern and others”.

Mitry Lawyers, which is representing Southern, told Guardian Australia on Thursday: “The commentary contained in that correspondence, to the extent it related to our client specifically (as opposed to general statements) is rejected.”

Southern, a Canadian film-maker and YouTube personality frequently described as a “rightwing provocateur”, has previously rejected claims of being a “white nationalist”, while speaking out against the “cult” of multiculturalism and criticising Muslim immigration into western countries.

She moved to Australia last year and describes herself on Twitter as a Sky News contributor – but has also said she is not employed by the broadcaster.

Related: Lauren Southern is on the comeback trail, and Australian conservatives are all too happy to help | Jason Wilson

Faruqi’s questions to News Corp executives at the Senate hearing last month focused on “the far-right conspiracy theory The Great Replacement”.

“It’s basically a conspiracy with roots in white nationalism and Islamophobia, saying that white European people in the western world are being replaced by non-Europeans at a mass scale,” Faruqi said, adding that the idea had “become popular in far-right circles”.

Faruqi noted that the Christchurch terrorist – who killed 51 Muslim worshippers in 2019 – had “called his manifesto The Great Replacement”.

She told the Senate inquiry that Southern “in 2017 made a viral YouTube video called The Great Replacement, which basically endorsed the theory”.

Southern’s video was published in July 2017 and it received hundreds of thousands of views. While the video is no longer online, Guardian Australia reported last year that the video discussed racial variation in birthrates, white “ethno-masochism” and the failure of non-white assimilation.

Faruqi asked News Corp about Sky News Australia’s decision last year to take on Southern as a contributor.

Michael Miller, the executive chairman of News Corp Australia, committed to make inquiries about the matter, saying he was a supporter of free speech, but there was “no place for hate speech”.

Southern tweeted almost immediately after the Senate exchange: “Not only did my video not inspire any shooting, the Christchurch shooter never watched my content.”

Southern has also said she was “never mentioned once” in the report on the shooter’s radicalisation and has argued that the shooter “simply used the theory as a catchy title”.

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New Zealand’s royal commission into the Christchurch attack found that the terrorist held “extreme rightwing views” and that the terrorist attack resulted from a combination of factors including “his ethno-nationalist views and his belief in the Great Replacement theory”.

“We are satisfied that by January 2017 the individual had a terrorist attack in mind,” the final report of the royal commission said.

“We are also satisfied that when the individual came to live in New Zealand on 17 August 2017, it was with a fully developed terrorist ideology based on his adoption of the Great Replacement theory and his associated beliefs that immigration, particularly by Muslim migrants, into western countries is an existential threat to western society and that the appropriate response (at least for him) was violence.”

The legal correspondence began on 22 February, when Mitry Lawyers, acting for Southern, wrote to Faruqi to outline concerns with the senator’s tweet of 19 February: “I asked Murdoch’s executives why Sky News is employing someone who promoted the ‘Great Replacement’ conspiracy theory that ended up inspiring the Christchurch terrorist who killed 51 innocent Muslims.”

Mitry Lawyers said the tweet “gives rise to an imputation that Ms Southern inspired the Christchurch terrorist to murder innocent people” – and that imputation “is false and defamatory of Ms Southern”.

“An ordinary reasonable reader when reading the post would not, in our view, automatically distinguish between the promotion of the ‘theory’ as a standalone matter, with the promotion of that ‘theory’ with a causal link to murder,” Mitry Lawyers wrote.

“The post does not make that distinction, allowing a reader to interpret the promotion of the ‘theory’ as an act which inspired murder.”

Southern’s lawyers conceded that Faruqi’s comments on the floor of the Senate inquiry, while “highly objectionable”, would be subject to the defence of absolute privilege.

But they argued the repetition of the matter outside parliament “in writing and on Twitter without context” did not have the same privileged character.

Mitry Lawyers asked Faruqi to delete the tweet by 5pm on 29 February and to submit a draft of a clear and unqualified apology and retraction by 5pm on 22 March.

Michael Bradley, the managing partner of Marque Lawyers, responded on Monday with a letter saying Faruqi “rejects your allegations and demands entirely” and “will not be taking any of the actions you have said you require”.

Bradley said the sole defamatory imputation alleged by Mitry Lawyers did not arise from the published matter.

“To reach that conclusion requires strained logic which goes well beyond what an ordinary reasonable reader would be likely to take from the wording in Senator Faruqi’s tweet,” Bradley wrote.

He said Faruqi had been careful to be “explicit in the precise words she used and the meaning she conveyed”.

Bradley wrote that a natural reading of the tweet “would lead to a conclusion that Senator Faruqi was suggesting that there was a link between these three distinct matters, in that the abhorrent racial theory which Ms Southern promoted was also an inspiration for the Christchurch terrorist, and that his decision to commit racially motivated mass murder was in some part connected to the abhorrent racial theory to which he subscribed”.

The law in Australia was not settled on the extent to which the absolute privilege attaching to parliamentary proceedings may protect members of parliament outside of parliament, Bradley said. Faruqi reserved the right to assert her tweet was protected by absolute privilege.

Bradley also argued that the tweet “constituted a fair report and/or a fair summary of the parliamentary proceedings” and Faruqi was also “able to avail herself of an alternative complete defence of contextual truth” under NSW defamation laws.

Southern previously attracted headlines when police asked her to move from outside a mosque in Lakemba in western Sydney in 2018. Southern was confronted by a journalist over her claims that the area had become a “monoculture”.

On the same speaking tour, Southern arrived in Brisbane in July 2018 wearing an “It’s okay to be white” shirt. And she told the Daily Mail that Sydney “certainly has a problem with mass Chinese immigration” and that Australia should put European migrants first.

In 2017, Southern was among a group of far-right activists attempting to obstruct humanitarian vessels running refugee rescue operations in the Mediterranean.

Southern has said on Twitter that it is “not racism to oppose [people smugglers] lying to desperate people in order to steal their money”.

In 2018, Southern said during a segment on Sky News’ Outsiders program that Islam was “dominating the western world” and added: “As soon as Islamists become over 50% of your population you will see your country looking exactly like any Islamic nation in the world.

“No one in Sweden or Canada or Australia for that matter was asked: do you want people with a completely different culture to immigrate here and create their own cultural enclaves?” Southern said at the time.

When asked by the Atlantic whether she took any responsibility for a surge in hate, Southern responded: “If anything I’ve said has contributed to that, it was because someone misinterpreted me.”

In the same feature article, published last year, Southern was quoted saying: “The word racist just means nothing to me anymore … It’s been so overused, I just have no respect for the term.”