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Bruce Lehrmann vs Channel Ten

Senior reporter for The Saturday Paper Rick Morton, on the lies, the truth and the reputations hanging in the balance.
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In searching for the truth, the defamation trial between Bruce Lehrmann and Network Ten has been defined by the discovery of lies. 

In the witness box, Lehrmann admitted to lying multiple times over the course of the saga.

Lehrmann says the lies don’t change his biggest claim – that he did not sexually assault Brittany Higgins – but the evidence has revealed new insights into that night in Canberra in 2019 that have reverberated through the media, law and politics ever since.

Today, senior reporter for The Saturday Paper Rick Morton, on the lies, the truth and the reputations hanging in the balance. 

 

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Guest: Senior reporter for The Saturday Paper, Rick Morton.

Read Transcript
[Theme Music Starts]
 
##ANGE:
From Schwartz Media, I’m Ange McCormack. This is *7am*.
 
In searching for the truth, the defamation trial between Bruce Lehrmann and Network Ten has been defined by the discovery of lies. 
 
In the witness box, Lehrmann admitted to lying multiple times over the course of the saga.
 
Lehrmann says the lies don’t change his biggest claim - that he did not sexually assault Brittany Higgins - but the evidence has revealed new insights into that night in Canberra in 2019 that has reverberated through the media, law and politics ever since.
 
Today, Senior reporter for *The Saturday Paper*, Rick Morton, on the lies, the truth and the reputations hanging in the balance. 
 
It’s Monday, December 4th. 
 
[Theme Music Ends]
 
##ANGE:
Rick, the story of Brittany Higgins has been in the news for years. You know, she and Bruce Lehrmann have become household names at this point. But last week, it was back in federal court and fresh details about the case emerged. What happened last week?
 
##RICK:
So yeah last week was a big week. A lot happened. And obviously it all comes back to this defamation trial, which has been launched by Bruce Lehrmann and against Network Ten and quite importantly, separately, Lisa Wilkinson, for what is an infamous interview now, I think on The Project, which aired back in February 2021. 
 
I guess it's worth reiterating that this is not a criminal trial. This is a civil trial, and it's about the fact that Bruce Lehrmann says that he lost his reputation because of this episode of The Project in this interview with Brittany Higgins. We've had a criminal trial which was abandoned after juror misconduct, and it didn't go ahead again because the prosecution was worried about Brittany Higgins mental health. So we never got a resolution. The chief allegation, of course, of that trial is that Brittany Higgins was raped by Bruce Lehrmann. He was never found guilty. He strenuously denies that he ever did anything on the night in Parliament House in question. 
 
I think we all know the bones of that story and has always fought to say that he was innocent in that regard. So this trial is really him saying “Channel Ten, you don't get to just broadcast that stuff.” And they're relying on on a truth defence, at least in part. So a case like these and, you know, figuring out the truth of something inevitably brings up the opposite just lies and, and misstatements and errors of recall and all the frailties of human memory. And I think we got all of that last week. 
 
##ANGE:
And in the first days of this trial, Bruce Lerhmann himself was on the stand. What have we learned about his version of events, about what happened on that night in Canberra in 2019? 
 
##RICK:
On the 22nd of March 2019, Bruce Lehrmann and Brittany Higgins, who are both staffers, political staffers in the office of Linda Reynolds, the Defence Industry Minister, and they're out drinking with friends and colleagues, people behind drinks for each other.
 
And Bruce Lehrmann has always claimed that he never bought Brittany Higgins a drink that night. In fact, he produced two credit cards or two cards to the Australian Federal Police to the criminal trial, saying, you know, I spent 16 bucks on this round of drinks. It was for two beers. But on Friday of the week before, we finally we saw the CCTV from the dock, which showed him quite clearly buying a drink for Brittany Higgins. And he was unable in his evidence to actually say, Well, what did you buy with. Because it didn't come up in your other credit cards that you submitted in evidence? You know, he was still denying. Up until that point. Up until he saw the footage. 
 
As the night wears on, everyone's getting increasingly drunk or inebriated, depending on Bruce, Bruce said not drunk, but inebriated. Britney, however, was, I think, five times over the legal limit and her and Bruce got an Uber home together because they live in roughly the same direction.
 
So for whatever reason we'll get into those. Bruce Lehrmann with Brittany Higgins arrived at Parliament House at about 1:48 a.m. on the morning of the 23rd of March 2019 and they were in the ministerial suite. He presses the intercom for security access, and he said there are recordings of this. He said, "I need to do work for Linda Reynolds." Who's the Minister for Defence Industry. That's lie number one. 
 
And the other versions of this story that he will go on to tell in just a couple of days. He would tell Linda Reynolds, Chief of staff Fiona Brown, that he was actually there just to drink whisky. He would then go on to tell the Australian Federal Police that actually no, he wasn't there to drink whisky because there was no alcohol in the office, which is not true, there was. 
 
And subsequently he would also tell almost everyone else that he was there to get his house keys because he couldn't go home without his house keys, but that he didn't tell security, that he was there for his house keys because they wouldn't have let him in.
 
They got allowed entry. They're escorted by security. Brittany Higgins was too drunk to sign herself in, so she is signed in on her own behalf. She can't put her shoes back on. And then, of course, we see the CCTV footage of them walking out the corridor, and it's the only footage we have. He goes left, she goes right. He maintains that is the last time he saw her that night. That is not what he told. According to Fiona Brown, her notes, he says that he said goodbye to Brittany Higgins before he left the suite. He denies that he said that and disputes that. 
 
The interesting thing about what he says he learned that made him, you know, urgently have to go to Parliament House while intoxicated to work on Question Time briefs, which are sensitive documents in a defence portfolio. It was because he'd heard this crucial detail, which he couldn't quite explain. It was something about the French sub contract. Who did he hear it from? Well, they were out drinking with other staffers. None of whom had this information. He testified that they were not policy officers. In fact, they had no high level policy information at all. So where did this French submarine stuff come from? We don't know. Bruce can't remember and was unable to tell his Honour Michael Lee anything about it. 
 
##ANGE:
The examination of Bruce Lehrmann didn't end there in terms of talking about what happened on that night in 2019, because there's a lot of significant events to this trial that happened after the night itself. What did Lehrmann say about what he did in the days and months after this alleged incident?
 
##RICK:
So his career comes to an end within three days, essentially. So on the 26th of March 2019, he's called in to see Fiona Brown. There are technically two meetings with Fiona Brown on the same day. The chief of staff, Bruce Lehrmann, maintains still in evidence that she didn't ask him what else he did in the office after he told her he came back to drink whisky. He also maintains that she did not say to him, which is also in her notes and in subsequent correspondence, “You have to see me, go pack your things up, see me before you leave Parliament House. Hand me your pass.” Bruce goes to pack up his things. He does not see Fiona Brown on the way out of Parliament House. 
 
This is all within half an hour of this meeting. And then within another half hour, he's got at 1:09 p.m. on the 26th March, Fiona Brown calls him. They call go through to the keeper, at 1:11 p.m. Fiona Brown calls him. It goes through to the keeper and then at 1:14 p.m. just minutes later, Bruce Lehrmann texts her and says, “Please talk to me via email.” 
 
And he gets on the 3rd of April, he gets a letter from Linda Reynolds expressing in the most serious terms her allegations of his serious misconduct, which is what she calls it, and that she wants him to respond, outlining his case, essentially it's a show cause letter. And she gives him 24 hours to write back. Bruce does that. He writes back a grovelling apology, you know, “I shouldn't put you in this position.” He tells two more lies to Linda Reynolds in his response, which he sends in the morning of the 4th of April. And on that morning, she says, “Call me when you get here so I can sign you in.”
 
And that's when he writes back to Fiona Brown and says, “Sorry, I'm done with a sensitive family issue. I'm not in Canberra at the moment.” He's asked by Matthew Collins KC, what was the sensitive family issue, his mother's health. “Okay. Where is your mother?” “Queensland.” “All right. Where are you in Queensland?” “No.” “Okay. So you're not in Canberra, according to you. You're not in Queensland. Where else could you be?” He said, “I don't remember.” And all he could say was, “I'm not, I wasn't within the bounds of Canberra, actually my girlfriend was moving to Sydney, said was probably in the process of moving my girlfriend's things to Sydney at that time, so I could have been refueling” in his honour is like, “Can you just try and put yourself back? You remember the text but you don't remember where you were.” 
 
And even though he writes back to Linda Reynolds, he actually doesn't answer her key question, which is, “what were you doing?” And she says that she writes back saying “you didn't answer it.” And so I just have to say goodbye.
 
##ANGE:
Coming up – what Brittany Higgins said under oath.
 
[Advertisement]
 
##ANGE:
Rick. So we heard from Brittany Higgins last week. What did we learn from her evidence and cross-examination?
 
##RICK:
Yeah. Brittany Higgins is evidence in terms of the central allegation has always been the same, which is that she was sexually assaulted and she was raped by Bruce Lehrmann. First, she was examined by Channel Ten's counsel and Lisa Wilkinson's counsel. 
 
And then under cross-examination by Steven Whybrow KC, who also represented Bruce Lehrmann at the criminal trial and started to, as you do under cross-examination, started to try and pick holes in Brittany Higgins’ story. And he did that in ways that you would expect of you know a counsel in a in a criminal matter, which was to, you know, say, well, “why aren't you really just concocting this story to save your job? You know, you're involved in this security breach as well. You saw Bruce Lehrmann lost his job. Didn't you try and concoct it?” 
 
And the counsel actually were like, that's ridiculous. Because if she wanted to save a job, she didn't need to go public. She'd already done it. If that is exactly what happened. So one of the things that Brittany Higgins really came under pressure for when she was cross-examined by Steven Whybrow KC, Bruce Lehrmann's barrister was what happened with the dress that she was wearing on the night that she said she was raped. Was it fully on or fully off? She gave evidence at her criminal trial that she remembered the dress being kind of still on her somehow, like partially bunched up around her torso. Security guards at Parliament House later gave interviews that they said they found completely naked. And so Britney was put under a lot of pressure about like, well, which one was it? Where was the dress? Was it on or off? And she said, “look, you know, I'd been raped.” She said “I was traumatised. My memory was not there. It wasn't my key consideration on this night” and in fact, she said it was never really a consideration because she you know, so much stuff had happened. It was obviously upsetting to me giving this evidence. But it's important to say, and this is important of both Bruce and Brittany's evidence. 
 
People's memories are not flawless and there are errors of recall in everyday life. And there are certainly errors of recall when you're under the strain of cross-examination. That's just true of all human beings, no matter who you are. 
 
##ANGE:
About something that happened almost more than 4 years ago.
 
##RICK:
Yeah. And the interesting thing for me watching this is, you know, what are the things that Brittany Higgins and Bruce Lehrmann are willing to say? Yeah, nope, I remember that or I got wrong. What things did I still say? No, no, no. I remember this way. Even though you've got evidence saying X, Y, Z. 
 
She's like, Look, I admit where I've made mistakes. When I found out new things or things that jog my memory, like text messages or evidence that she's gained access to over the years. Of course, it forces her to think about her story. Right. And so there were a few things in both cases where you could see counsel really trying to batten down every possible…
 
##ANGE:
Tiny detail. 
 
##RICK:
And when you pulled back and look at look at all of this stuff, in any case, you start to get a sense, well, that's actually not that important. 
 
##ANGE:
And it is easy to get lost in the weeds of this evidence and kind of forget that this trial isn't a criminal trial. Bruce Lehrmann isn't on trial. Network Ten is. This is a trial to determine if his reputation has been damaged. But after all this evidence, just how exposing has the trial itself been for Bruce Lehrmann? 
 
##RICK:
Yeah, Well, I mean, we haven't heard his tested version of events. In fact, we hadn't heard much from Bruce Lehrmann at all until this year when he granted his first ever interview to Channel Seven. 
 
##Audio excerpt – Reporter:
“Tonight on Spotlight”
 
##Audio excerpt – Unknown:
“...Got two people going into Linda Reynolds’ suite.”
 
##RICK:
And the Spotlight program with the reporter Liam Bartlett. 
 
##Audio excerpt – Unknown:
“Bruce Lehrmann has kept silent for four long years.”
 
##RICK:
But in that interview, Bruce, you know, claims to speak for the first time to give his version of events. And the Channel Seven Spotlight interview is an interesting one because it's come up through this trial that he was paid, for that interview maybe it wasn't just a contribution to his accommodation cost, which makes it sound like they paid for his hotel for the night. As Channel seven said publicly, they paid him $130,000 in rent and are still paying, I should say. So it's $130,000 over a year. That's the contribution to accommodation costs. And in that interview, Bruce Lehrmann said things that have been further brought up now in this defamation trial where they're linked as a lie about a lie in a program which lied about whether they paid Bruce Lehrmann.
 
And this kind of underscores the high risk, high reward nature of any defamation, high profile definition trial, which is that things come out, you're going to air everything. So you're putting your version of events out there for the ultimate test. He stands to either receive a lot of money in compensation for the loss of his reputation if the judge so finds or ala Ben Roberts-Smith had that reputation further diminished because of things that are brought out through that trial.
 
##ANGE:
And Rick - the other thing that’s been exposed is the way the media has handled these stories and handled the people involved in them. What can we take from that part of this saga? 
 
##RICK:
There are two people, Brittany Higgins and Bruce Lehrmann, who could have just gone to court and it could have been dealt with. But then there has been this proxy media battle.
 
Some journalists broke the story. Other journalists decided to try and take it to pieces. I don't know that that serves anyone. I'm a journalist. I said, you know, technically I should take the side of journalism in all these things. But, you know, I do think there is an added layer of complexity when there is a high profile anything added to these stories? 
 
I just think the structures that are set up around these things are not good. They don't help anyone. They certainly don't help sexual assault survivors and they don't help you and I understand what is actually going on beneath the hood of justice in this country. 
 
##ANGE:
Rick, thanks so much for your time today.
 
##RICK:
Thanks, Ange.
 
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[Theme Music Starts]
 
##ANGE:
Also in the news today, 
 
The Greens have launched a senate inquiry into price gouging at Australian supermarkets. 
 
The inquiry will scrutinise the impact of market concentration, the pattern of price setting and the rise in profits among Coles and Woolworths during the cost of living crisis.
 
And 
 
COP 28 has begun in Dubai, with UN secretary general Antonio Guterres warning countries they must end fossil fuel subsidies and put prices on carbon to avoid climate disaster.
 
Australia has done neither, but did sign a pledge this weekend to help triple the worlds renewable energy capacity, along with more than 100 other nations.
 
I’m Ange McCormack, this is *7am*. Tomorrow, we’ll look at which of our federal politicians went to private schools… and why the gap between public and private education in Australia is getting even bigger. See you then. 
 
[Theme Music Ends]

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