7 December 2022

Lehrmann trial delivers no winners and a long list of losers

| Ross Solly
Brittany Higgins and Bruce Lehrmann walking outside court

Brittany Higgins and Bruce Lehrmann, pictured during court proceedings in October 2022. Photo: Albert McKnight.

There are no winners and a long list of losers from the Lehrmann/Higgins court case, and the subsequent public debate has not portrayed Australia in a positive light.

It’s been quite amazing reading, listening and watching people who should know better, assuming to know more than the jury who sat through every day of the trial but could not agree if Bruce Lehrmann raped political staffer Brittany Higgins or not before the trial was aborted.

No worries for the thousands of keyboard warriors, some in very senior and influential roles, who angrily banged out their thoughts on the case and then attempted to take down anyone who dared to disagree with them.

I am not going to join the chorus of outrage on either side: those who are claiming the decision to drop the case has set women’s rights back decades, and those who claim Lehrmann is the victim of a lynch mob who decided his guilt long before he even appeared in court.

READ ALSO Bruce Lehrmann rape charge dropped due to ‘unacceptable risk’ to Brittany Higgins’ life

This is a very emotive issue, made even more so by recent MeToo cases, and the Jenkins Review of the culture at Parliament House.

Of course, social media went into meltdown, and arguments quickly became nasty, personal and defamatory (as social media debates always seem to do).

But if there is one lesson everyone should take from this whole sad tale, it is that these sorts of cases should remain out of the public domain.

I can certainly understand why Brittany Higgins may have felt she was raising the voice of women by going public, but unfortunately, that decision has now come at a high cost.

As soon as it became obvious that the case would boil down to one person’s word against another, and the alleged incident took place on a night when large quantities of alcohol were consumed, you knew it would get very messy. And it did.

There is also a lesson for the media – as hard as it can be to turn your back on a ratings winner or a potential Walkley Award, think through the consequences – for both parties, for the justice system and whether airing these sorts of allegations will help or hinder people in similar situations in the future.

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Would I have reported the story if Brittany Higgins had come to me? Probably, but I’d like to think I would have at least tried to keep the names of both parties out of it. The fallout from this trial has given me pause for thought, and I’d like to think I would act differently now.

Both Higgins and Lehrmann have had their personal lives laid bare, played out in saturation media coverage that spared no blushes. Higgins is correct to say she sometimes felt she was the person on trial, but her experience, I am sure, is what any person who alleges they were raped or sexually abused has to go through. That in itself is a major issue.

What made it more difficult for Higgins is her experiences were being relived on nightly news and radio bulletins and on the front page of newspapers.

Is the upshot of this experience that women will be less likely to report sexual assaults? Let’s hope not. If there is a final lesson to be taken, it’s that victims should go immediately to the police and also get tested ASAP.

And then stay away from the media.

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