Farewell to a newspaper lawyer who broke the mould

Brian Gallagher, the in-house counsel for News Limited for 30 years whose legal defences strengthened the implied constitutional right to freedom of political speech, was farewelled in a memorial service at the Binalong Catholic Church, in the NSW southern highlands on Wednesday.

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Brian Gallagher

Mr Gallagher had died, aged 81, last week after a short illness.

Hired by rambunctious News Limited editor Owen Thomson in the mid-1970s to stem the flow of writs that was landing on his desk, Mr Gallagher broke new ground in publishing by working with editors and journalists to bring contentious stories into print. This ran contrary to the conventional legal practice at the time of simply binning a story if it generated a whiff of being actionable.

Known as ‘Twitch’ or his more formal nickname of ‘Mr Justice Galley Proof’, Mr Gallagher went about his business with flair and acumen, laughing aloud at the audacity of some wrong-doers featured in stories,  which made him more determined to find ways to publish legally the imputations laid out in the report.

At times this meant the journalist had to do more research or confirm with other sources, but it always meant that the story was not only publishable, but better for his intervention.

He loved a good story, as much as telling potential litigants with a threadbare case to “sue at their peril” or, as former Daily Telegraph managing editor Roger Coombs recalls, that their “bumptious complaint is without merit”.

When there was a risk of defamation, and the story had a justifiable defence, Twitch would be urging its publication.

It was his defence in the case of Nationwide News versus Wills in 1992 that strengthened through common law the implied right under the Constitution of freedom of political speech.  The action was over a story published in The Australian attacking the independence of the then Australian Industrial Relations Commission.

While it was an offence under the Industrial Relations Act (1988) to bring the commission into disrepute, Nationwide News, the publisher of The Australian, argued that the Act infringed the implied constitutional right of freedom of political communications. The Nationwide defence held sway.

In a eulogy to Mr Gallagher, Mr Coombs said his colleague avoided the usual staid safety-first policy of avoiding risk at all costs. “What Brian understood clearly was that it was his job to help editors publish, not to thwart them, and in no time, the papers’ editors came to realise that Brian could be an invaluable partner in their publishing endeavours,” he said.” So – win, win. Bosses happy, editors happy – peace on earth, goodwill to mankind.”

Former editor-in-chief of The Australian David Armstrong recalls when Twitch joined News. “After a few months of getting to know the journalists, he quietly redefined his role as publishing as much as we could legally get away with; journos then started using the name ‘Twitch’ affectionately,” he said.

Former editor of The Daily Mirror and Sunday Telegraph Roy Miller joined scores of colleagues on Facebook in paying tribute to Mr Gallagher. “He had a habit of saying ‘There’s nothing wrong with the story. Go for it’. As he was leaving your office he would then say: give them nothing … why don’t you just change a few words … and the headline could say something like…” He was a character.”

Mr Gallagher retired in 2004 after a stroke robbed him of his ability to speak as clearly as he had been able in his heyday in Sydney and provincial courts. However, as Mr Coombs noted in his eulogy, the affliction did not fetter his clarity and quickness of mind.

“We used to sum up people such as Brian in a pithy aphorism – he was a gentleman and a scholar. But that is to say way too little,” he said. “He was witty, he was charming, warm-hearted, open and generous, insightfully intelligent, a boon companion, a blithe spirit if ever there was one, and consciously, he made a positive difference in the lives of all of us with whom his own life’s trajectory intersected.”

Mr Gallagher is survived by his wife, Gay.

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