Network Ten has joined its star journalist Lisa Wilkinson in indicating it will seek to prove former federal Liberal staffer Bruce Lehrmann raped his then-colleague Brittany Higgins in Parliament House as part of its defence to his defamation claim against the news outlet.
In a written defence filed in the Federal Court, Ten’s lawyers set out particulars of the network’s truth defence and allege Lehrmann was “sexually attracted to Higgins” and “attempted to kiss her after a staff dinner” in March 2019, days before the alleged sexual assault on March 22.
Bruce Lehrmann outside the ACT Supreme Court last year.Credit:Alex Ellinghausen
“Higgins politely declined Lehrmann’s advance and Lehrmann got into a taxi or Uber and left,” the defence says.
Lehrmann filed Federal Court defamation proceedings against Ten and News Corp last month over interviews with Higgins on news.com.au and The Project published on February 15, 2021.
He names Wilkinson, a Ten employee who left The Project last year, and news.com.au political editor Samantha Maiden as respondents to the lawsuits against their respective employers.
Lehrmann alleges the publications convey a series of defamatory meanings, including that he “raped Brittany Higgins in [then-]Defence [Industry] Minister Linda Reynolds’ office in 2019”.
Wilkinson has hired her own legal team, headed by Sydney defamation barrister Sue Chrysanthou, SC. She filed her written defence to the claim last week and is also seeking to rely in part on a defence of truth.
Ten, whose legal team is headed by Melbourne-based barrister Matt Collins, KC, filed its defence to the claim on Tuesday and it was released publicly by the Federal Court on Wednesday.
News Corp and Maiden, who are both represented by Melbourne barrister Renee Enbom, KC, filed a joint defence on Tuesday evening that has yet to be released by the court.
In its written defence, Ten joined Wilkinson in arguing the court should not grant Lehrmann’s application for an extension of a one-year limitation period for bringing a defamation claim.
The interviews at the centre of the lawsuits, marking Higgins’ first comments in public, were published two years ago. The limitation period issue is expected to be addressed at a preliminary hearing on March 16. The parties will attend a first case management hearing on Wednesday.
Bruce Lehrmann’s lawsuit against Network Ten and News Corp also names journalists Lisa Wilkinson and Samantha Maiden as respondents.Credit:Nine
If the court grants the time extension and the case proceeds to trial, Ten and Wilkinson have indicated they will seek to rely on a range of defences, including truth and qualified privilege – a defence relating to publications of public interest where a publisher has acted reasonably.
One of the issues in the case is whether Lehrmann was identified by the publications. Neither News Corp nor Ten named Lehrmann but he was subsequently named in the media in August 2021 after he was charged with sexual intercourse without consent.
He pleaded not guilty to the charge. His trial was aborted in October last year due to juror misconduct and the charge was later dropped altogether amid concerns about Higgins’ mental health. Lehrmann has always maintained his innocence.
Ten denies in its written defence that it identified Lehrmann.
If the court finds Lehrmann was identified by the broadcast, Ten admits that it conveyed the defamatory claims alleged by his lawyers including the central claim of rape. It says the initial broadcast had an average national audience of approximately 726,728.
In support of its truth defence, Ten sets out a range of particulars including alleging that “there was a substantial and obvious imbalance of power and experience between Lehrmann and Higgins” when she started in Reynolds’ office in March 2019 after a stint in then-minister Steve Ciobo’s office.
By this time, Lehrmann had “worked for Reynolds for at least one year” and was the most senior staff member in the office besides the chief of staff, the defence says, while Higgins was the most junior.
Ten’s lawyers also say Lehrmann “contrived to meet Higgins” on March 2, 2019, at the Kingston Hotel in Canberra with a senior media adviser to his boss, Reynolds.
“Higgins understood her meeting [with the senior media adviser] … was a form of job interview, the purpose of which was to meet members of Reynolds’ team and get to know them,” the defence says.
“In fact, unbeknownst to Higgins, the meeting … was not a job interview at all but, rather, was arranged at Lehrmann’s behest because Lehrmann thought Higgins was physically attractive and he asked [the media adviser] … to invite Higgins out for a drink.
“Higgins was subsequently offered, and accepted, a job as an administration officer and junior media adviser in Reynolds’ parliamentary office, which she commenced in early-mid March 2019.”
Should the case proceed to trial and the truth defence be considered, Ten and Wilkinson will need to prove on the balance of probabilities – meaning it is more likely than not – that Lehrmann raped Higgins in Parliament House in 2019.
While this is less onerous than the criminal standard of proof beyond reasonable doubt, the so-called Briginshaw principle applies in civil cases involving serious allegations and requires courts to proceed cautiously in making grave findings.
Unlike in a criminal trial, Lehrmann does not have a right to silence and a judge may make adverse inferences if he fails to give evidence. He is expected to appear in the witness box and be cross-examined by barristers for Wilkinson and Ten.
Higgins is also expected to be subpoenaed to give evidence at the trial, should it proceed.
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