The judgment in the Bruce Lehrmann defamation trial will be handed down today. This is what’s at stake for each party

The judgment in the Bruce Lehrmann defamation trial will be handed down today. This is what’s at stake for each party
  • PublishedApril 15, 2024

A federal court judge will today deliver his long-awaited decision in the defamation case brought by former Liberal staffer Bruce Lehrmann against Network Ten and journalist Lisa Wilkinson.

For five weeks the civil case heard evidence related to one of the most significant political scandals in recent Australian history: the alleged rape of Brittany Higgins in Parliament House in 2019.

Mr Lehrmann sued Ten and Wilkinson after an interview with Ms Higgins on The Project, in which she spoke about the allegation.

Mr Lehrmann’s criminal trial in the ACT Supreme Court was abandoned after juror misconduct, leaving no findings against him.

He has always denied the allegation.

His defamation proceedings also raised questions of witness credibility and media ethics of multiple key players, as Ten tried to argue defences of truth and public interest.

Here’s what they stand to gain — or lose — from the outcome.

Bruce Lehrmann

Bruce Lehrmann walks into court.
Justice Lee will deliver his judgment in the trial launched by Mr Lehrmann.(AAP: Bianca De Marchi)

Mr Lehrmann, the initiator of the case, has money and reputation at stake.

On the night Ten’s exclusive interview with Brittany Higgins went to air in February 2021, Mr Lehrmann told his then-girlfriend his lawyer believed he’d be “up for millions” in a defamation payout if he was named.

He wasn’t, but his lawyers have argued he was still identifiable, in part courtesy of the rumour mill of Parliament House.

If he loses the case, he will not receive any damages and will likely be on the line to pay his opponents’ legal costs.

This is the first time a court will make a finding on what took place during a 40-minute period in March 2019, when Mr Lehrmann and Ms Higgins were both in the office of Senator Linda Reynolds, their boss at the time.

However, it’s a civil case where the test is the balance of probabilities rather than beyond reasonable doubt.

Justice Michael Lee must first decide whether Mr Lehrmann was identifiable, and if he was, whether Ten has protected itself from liability by showing the allegations are true, or that there was a public interest in publishing the material.

Mr Lehrmann will also have to overcome claims of dishonesty, after admitting to a series of lies, including to Parliament House security and his boss.

Even his own lawyers admit it would be open to the court to form an adverse view of his credibility.

What that means is that even if he wins, his damages could be minimal.

Network Ten

Sign of the number 10 in a blue circle
The network would see success in the defamation case as a victory for press freedom.(ABC News: Jak Rowland)

Ten risks having to pay significant damages if it loses, depending on how the fact finding plays out, and it could also be left with Mr Lehrmann’s costs.

But the injury may go beyond financial considerations.

The judge also raised questions of his own about whether journalists involved in the story were members of the journalists’ union the MEAA, and whether they are bound by the ethics in the union’s code of conduct.

That may suggest journalistic standards and integrity could be one of the things called into question in the judgment.

A win would of course be celebrated by the network as a victory for press freedom — which would no doubt be similarly welcomed by the media more broadly.

Lisa Wilkinson

Lisa Wilkinson arrives at court.
Wilkinson spoke about the allegation with Ms Higgins but did not name Mr Lehrmann in the interview.(AAP: Dean Lewins)

For the veteran journalist, who is also a respondent in the case, a loss would represent a blow to the legacy of a career-defining story.

Wilkinson has experienced many highs and lows during her involvement in the interview and subsequent litigation.

At the peak she won a Logie, only to face scrutiny over a victory speech which was blamed for delaying the criminal trial — however it later emerged her speech was legally cleared and encouraged at Ten’s highest levels.

During the hearing she fired back at the suggestion she was motivated to present the rape allegation as truth because of the story’s “riveting commercial appeal”, saying she was not a “cheap, tabloid journalist”.

Wilkinson argued her colleagues had most of the responsibility for checking details that required clarification before the interview went to air.

The judge may comment on how reasonable that attitude is.

Ten will have to pay most of Wilkinson legal costs in the defamation case, after the judge ruled she was justified in seeking her own lawyers.

Brittany Higgins

Close up of Brittany Higgins with her head down.
Ms Higgins was a key witness in Ten’s defence.(AAP: Dean Lewins)

Brittany Higgins was a crucial witness for Ten’s truth defence, but she was not a party in the case.

She will be hoping for vindication.

If Ten’s truth defence fails, this could be seen as a reflection on her account (again, remembering the findings are in a civil context with a different standard of proof).

In what is essentially a “he said, she said” story, Justice Lee has already said he believes there are “significant credibility issues” with both Ms Higgins and Mr Lehrmann.

But the judge did recognise she was disadvantaged by not being a party, and invited her to make submissions in the final stretch.

Taylor Auerbach and Channel Seven

A man in a blue suit walks past cameras and journalists.
Taylor Auerbach claimed Seven paid for sex workers and drugs for Mr Lehrmann before he was interviewed for the network’s Spotlight series.(AAP: Bianca De Marchi)

The wild card in the case popped up unexpectedly last week, prompting Network Ten to have the case reopened.

Taylor Auerbach, a former Channel Seven producer burst into the court with claims Seven had paid for sex workers and drugs for Mr Lehrmann, by way of luring him to an exclusive interview on its Spotlight program.

Seven has completely rejected his claims.

But it was his allegation that Mr Lehrmann had supplied Seven with material from the trial, which should have remained confidential, that Network Ten wanted the court to hear.

That could form part of the assessment of Mr Lehrmann’s credibility, since he had denied giving anything other than an interview.

And then there’s the question of what happens next for the Spotlight program and its staff.

After Mr Auchbach’s bruising evidence, Seven will be bracing for any adverse comments in Justice Lee’s decision that could cause further damage to the network. 

SOURCE: ABCNEWS

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