Defamation action launched by former Liberal staffer Bruce Lehrmann against Network Ten, journalist Lisa Wilkinson and the ABC began in the Federal Court on Wednesday (22 November) over reporting of allegations he raped Brittany Higgins at Parliament House.
However, as proceedings began, the action against the ABC was resolved, with an agreement with Mr Lehrmann to settle.
Mr Lehrmann’s action against the ABC was over the broadcaster’s airing of Ms Higgins’ National Press Club speech in 2022.
The allegations against Mr Lehrmann were not resolved in a criminal trial in the ACT Supreme Court; the case was abandoned following a mistrial.
No findings have been made against Mr Lehrmann regarding the allegations concerning Ms Higgins and he has maintained his innocence.
After the criminal case was dropped, Mr Lehrmann launched the civil action against Network Ten and the ABC, along with journalist Lisa Wilkinson.
He had also filed a suit against journalist Samantha Maiden and her employer, News Life Media, who broke the story containing the original allegations against Mr Lehrmann alongside Network Ten in February 2021.
That suit has previously been settled outside of court.
Mr Lehrmann has continued his case against Ms Wilkinson and Network Ten, accusing them of defamation over reports about Ms Higgins’ allegations, which aired on The Project on 15 February 2021.
While he was not named in these reports, Mr Lehrmann has argued he was still identifiable.
Mr Lehrmann’s statement of claim submitted both Ms Wilkinson and Network Ten were “recklessly indifferent to the truth or falsity of the imputations carried by the matters complained of in publishing the assertions and allegations”.
“The conduct of the [respondents] in presenting the publication of the matters complained of in an over-sensationalised manner indicating intent to injure [Mr Lehrmann’s reputation],” it stated.
Network Ten and Lisa Wilkinson’s defence documents outline that while they did publish a story about Ms Higgins’ allegations, if they’re found liable to Mr Lehrmann for damages, “which is denied”, they’ll be relying on the truth defence.
“[Ms Wilkinson will rely on] the substantial truth of so many of Lehrmann’s imputations as are found to be substantially true [and] the facts, matters and circumstances proved in support of the justification defences relied on by the respondents at trial,” her defence documents stated.
Ms Wilkinson’s story was reviewed by lawyers before it was broadcast.
Her defence also argued the allegations needed to be published “expeditiously” because “the toxic environment in Parliament House towards women was a topic of significant public interest and concerned governmental and political matters”.
As proceedings began on Wednesday (22 November), Network Ten attempted to stop the livestream of the Federal Court proceedings on YouTube.
Reasons included that Mr Lehrmann had been accused of sexual assault in Queensland, and so “uncontrolled livestream of the trial” could prejudice his right to a fair trial in that matter or any other “future criminal proceedings”.
Network Ten also argued that the defamation case would be extensively covered in the media anyway, so “this is not a case in which, in the absence of a livestream, the public would not be properly informed of developments”.
Justice Michael Lee disagreed, stating, “administration of justice is best served and facilitated by the Court adopting the now common course of livestreaming the hearing of this case and rejecting Network Ten’s proposed alternative orders”.
“The appropriate livestreaming of proceedings of public importance facilitates open justice in the modern courtroom,” he said.
Justice Lee also noted that Mr Lehrmann preferred to have the proceedings livestreamed.
The case continues.