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Bruce Lehrmann defamation trial ends

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The Bruce Lehrmann defamation case now awaits a verdict from Justice Michael Lee, following the end of the trial this week.
Bruce Lehrmann defamation case

Content warning: Sexual assault

The defamation case brought by Bruce Lehrmann against Network Ten and Lisa Wilkinson concluded on Friday, after more than a month in the Federal Court.

Lehrmann is suing Network Ten and Wilkinson for defamation (the act of harming one’s reputation) over a story that aired on The Project in February 2021.

Initial allegation

On 15 February 2021, former Liberal staffer Brittany Higgins alleged she had been raped in an office in Parliament House by a male colleague in 2019.

The allegation was first published on news.com.au and then in an interview with journalist Lisa Wilkinson on Network Ten’s The Project on the same day.

Lehrmann has always denied the allegation. He says no sexual contact took place. He was not named in either media report. However, he argues he was still identifiable to some. Lehrmann was publicly named after criminal charges were filed against him.

The criminal trial against Lehrmann failed – meaning there was no outcome – due to juror misconduct. A re-trial was abandoned due to mental health concerns for Higgins.

Bruce Lehrmann defamation case

Lehrmann sued news.com.au, Network 10 and the ABC for defamation. He has since settled with news.com.au and the ABC.

Lehrmann said that despite not being named, The Project interview made him identifiable to friends and former colleagues and destroyed his reputation.

Network Ten and Wilkinson are mostly relying on the ‘truth defence’ in this case. Essentially, they claim the allegation at the centre of the interview is substantially true and therefore not defamatory.

Who has appeared?

Lehrmann gave evidence during the trial. It was the first time he had been in the witness box because he was not required to do this in the criminal trial. During his cross-examination, Lehrmann denied ever having sexual contact with Higgins and said he became suicidal after the interview aired.

Higgins was asked to recount the events and circumstances around the alleged rape. She said she initially didn’t want to go public about the incident, due to fears it could threaten her career.

Higgins’ parents also appeared during the trial. They told the court their daughter became withdrawn after the alleged rape.

Wilkinson gave evidence to the trial last week. She rejected any suggestion she had acted unfairly against Lehrmann, and defended her level of journalistic rigour and scrutiny of Higgins when investigating the story.

The court also heard from Fiona Brown. She was Chief of Staff to then-Defence Industry Minister Linda Reynolds, in whose office Higgins and Lehrmann worked at the time of the alleged rape. Brown said she held concerns for Higgins after hearing she had been in the office after hours, but maintained the incident wasn’t originally being dealt with as an assault.

Network Ten also called on a lip-reader to help decode conversation recorded on CCTV between Lehrmann and Higgins on the night of the alleged rape.

What happens next?

Evidence given in the trial will now be considered by Justice Michael Lee, the judge who has overseen the case.

It could take several months for him to deliver his verdict.

1800 RESPECT: 1800 737 732

Lifeline: 13 11 14

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