Suing for defamation: Joe Hockey.

Suing for defamation: Joe Hockey. Photo: Ken Irwin

Fairfax Media says it was in the public interest to publish details about a fund-raising forum that offered access to Treasurer Joe Hockey in exchange for donations of thousands of dollars.

Mr Hockey is suing Fairfax Media for defamation, claiming a series of articles published in the Herald, The Age and The Canberra Times conveyed a series of defamatory meanings including that he "accepted bribes paid to influence the decisions he made as Treasurer".

In a defence filed in the Federal Court, Fairfax Media denies the articles and the headlines including "Treasurer for Sale'' are capable of defaming Mr Hockey in the way he claims.

Mr Hockey claims that, as a result of the articles published on May 5, he has been "greatly injured, shunned and avoided and his reputation has been and will be brought into disrepute, odium, ridicule and contempt".

A jury - a rarity in Federal Court proceedings - could be empanelled to decide if some or all of the imputations are defamatory.

If the jury finds in Mr Hockey's favour, Fairfax Media says it has a defence of qualified privilege at common law and under NSW defamation law and defamation legislation in each state and territory.

It says the Australian public has a legitimate and significant interest in the implications of senior government ministers using the authority of their position to assist in fund-raising for a political party.

Further, it had responsibility to publish information about Mr Hockey's involvement in the North Sydney Forum, the identity of North Sydney Forum members and the level and nature of access to Mr Hockey obtained by being a member of the North Sydney Forum or by giving money to the North Sydney Forum.

The articles, written by journalists Sean Nicholls and Mark Kenny, raised important questions about whether membership of such forums delivers privileged access to senior members of government not available to ordinary people and whether that is fair or desirable.

Mr Hockey says Fairfax Media's "over sensational, extravagant and unfair presentation" of the articles indicated an "intent to injure" him. He is claiming damages, including aggravated damages, interest and costs, although the amount of damages is not specified.

But Fairfax Media denies he is entitled to the relief claimed or any relief at all.

It says the articles were based upon information obtained responsibly and fairly including information from the North Sydney Forum website, forum chairman John Hart, deputy chairman Robert Orrell, former chairman Joseph Carrozzi, members of the forum and officials of North Sydney Funding Election committee, all of whom were "sources of integrity or apparent integrity".

The journalists also obtained information from the NSW Election Funding Authority, Independent Commission Against Corruption hearings, the Australian Electoral Commission and senior Liberal Party figures, and they took steps to verify the information.

Mr Hockey was also given an opportunity to respond to detailed questions and his response was published in the articles.

The case is set down for a two-week hearing in March next year.