Partners and principals at leading Australian venture capital firms, including Square Peg Capital, Main Sequence Ventures, Giant Leap, Jelix Ventures, and Flying Fox Ventures have signed an open letter to the editor the AFR about what the investment community sees as “an ongoing smear campaign” against colleague Dr Elaine Stead.
The letter follows a high profile defamation case Stead won against the publication and its columnist Joe Aston late last year.
Stead was awarded $280,000 by Justice Michael Lee in the Federal Court over columns written by Aston in 2018 and 2019 when she was MD of VC at the now-defunct fund manager Blue Sky Alternative Investments. Aston described her as a “feminist cretin” and a “prodigious destroyer of capital”.
“The targeted campaign of offensive mockery of Dr Stead was unjustified and improper and meant the manner in which Fairfax and Mr Aston committed the tort of publishing the defamatory matters caused damage,” Justice Lee’s judgment said.
He said the columns amounted to “a form of bullying”.
Justice Lee subsequently awarded costs of more than $1 million against the publisher on the grounds that it had repeatedly refused attempts to settle with Dr Stead during 2020. She had offered to drop the case for $190,000, plus costs, provided the articles were taken down.
Stead had also refused confidential settlement offers from the AFR for $200,000 and $250,000, with a “clarification”.
On Saturday, Stead featured as the cover story in The Weekend Australian Magazine, detailing why she launched the defamation case, how she’d been suicidal and sought treatment subsequently and her return to the venture capital sector.
On Sunday, Aston published a column in response with the headline “Elaine Stead’s unbreakable delusion”.
Today, M8 Ventures founder Alan Jones posted the open letter to the AFR’s editor-in-chief, Michael Stutchbury, signed by more than 40 people in the investment sector, with a plea for more to sign it.
Jones said many in the startup community “have been shocked observers of a campaign of sustained bullying in print” by Aston “to discredit and belittle one of our industry’s own” in Stead.
Jones says many offered their support privately to stay off Aston’s radar, because that’s “what often happens when men bully women”.
He took aim at Sunday’s column in response to the profile in a rival publication.
“Drag your eyes away from Aston’s latest column to the front page of our national newspapers and you’ll recognise that Australia has a problem with men who bully women,” Jones wrote.
“No matter where women are in their career, or how successful they have been in business, public service, politics or sport, some Australian men like to use what power and influence they have as a license to demean them.”
Jones labelled Aston’s column “a rehash of his unsuccessful defence in the defamation case he’d conclusively lost”, asking “What message does this send to the men and women who read the AFR, about what happens to women who speak up about being bullied and harassed?”
“Please exercise the editorial leadership required to put a stop to this” the letter to Stutchbury says.
You can read the open letter here.
Startup Daily contacted Nine, publishers of the AFR, and the publication’s editor-in-chief for comment, but did not receive a response.