The Brittany Higgins saga: Bruce Lehrmann’s day in court
The story of former Liberal staffer Brittany Higgins’ alleged sexual assault at Parliament House in March 2019 is well known to the Australian public.
If true, it is an horrific case of betrayal, violence and abuse of power by her now-disgraced colleague, Bruce Lehrmann — and a frightful glimpse into a toxic workplace culture on Capital Hill.
If false, Higgins’ recounting of that drunken night is an equally serious betrayal in an era when “believe all women” is sacrosanct, and morning-after regret can all too easily be remembered or recast as “rape”.
These wildly divergent possibilities are why — in societies governed by the rule of law — guilt and innocence are decided in court, not newspapers or national broadcasters.
For Bruce Lehrmann, that luxury has unfortunately passed him by.
However, almost two years after he was declared de facto guilty by a press pack spearheaded by news.com.au’s Samantha Maiden and Lisa Wilkinson of Network Ten’s The Project, Lehrmann is striking back.
This week Lehrmann lodged defamation cases in the Federal Court against News Life Media and Network Ten, in which both Maiden and Wilkinson are named as respondents. In the documents he submitted, Lehrmann states that in both interviews he was clearly identifiable to politicians and staffers within Parliament House.
As reported by ABC News, “Lehrmann said his personal and professional reputation had been brought into public disrepute, and the way the news items were published was ‘recklessly indifferent to the truth’.” He has called for damages and aggravated damages.
Lehrmann maintains his innocence. He has flatly denied that he had any sort of sexual encounter with Brittany Higgins. In his words, “it simply didn’t happen”.
The trial against him was abandoned last year when prosecutors dropped all charges and then opted not to proceed with a retrial. The reason for the abandoned trial is still a matter of speculation involving both Higgins’ poor mental state and a lack of reliable evidence for the case.
None of this prevented Lehrmann’s trial-by-media or the torrential downpour of accolades for the two journalists who interviewed Higgins.
For her “scoops” on Higgins, Samantha Maiden, news.com.au’s National Political Editor, won the prestigious Gold Walkley for excellence in journalism in 2021, along with the award for Best Coverage of a News Event at the same awards night.
She also won Journalist of the Year, Scoop of the Year, Outstanding Political Reporting and Outstanding Investigative Journalism at the Kennedy Awards in 2021. Maiden was also decorated with the Our Watch Award at the 2021 Mid-Year Walkleys, Journalist of the Year at the 2021 Mumbrella Publish Awards, and Best Single Article of the Year — all for her reporting on the Higgins saga.
Last year, Lisa Wilkinson took home the Silver Logie For Most Outstanding News Coverage Or Public Affairs Report for her Higgins interview.
In the meantime, Brittany Higgins herself has landed a A$320,000 book contract, been appointed by Julia Gillard as a visiting fellow at the ANU’s Global Institute for Women’s Leadership, received apologies from two Prime Ministers presupposing the truth of her accusations, been featured on the cover of women’s magazines, was given a standing ovation by the National Press Club, and retains her celebrity-victim status in the legacy press. She also may have received up to $3 million in a private settlement with the Commonwealth over her untested allegations.
Lehrmann, by contrast, was denied the presumption of innocence and the right to a fair trial. Today he is unemployed and unemployable, with a name and face that will forever be tainted.
In the ultimate #MeToo triumph, three women have been believed. But does the message they have broadcast to Australia and the world reflect reality? We may never know.
Whether or not Higgins told the truth, the precedent has been set. Sympathy, praise, awards and cash await any woman willing to weaponise the media against their accused.
The Australian justice system is built on two foundations. First, equality before the law. And second, the presumption of innocence, which at its core includes the right to a fair trial.
The persecution of Lehrmann by sections of the media upended this. A flank of high-profile journalists and celebrities transformed the presumption of innocence into the presumption of guilt.
In this instance, as in others, many in the media used the cover of #MeToo to advance careers, preen in public, and pursue political agendas. Feral activists on social media and some more seasoned journalists in the mainstream media decided that an allegation of rape was sufficient to do away with protections offered by the law such as the presumption of innocence, due process and the rule of law.
Albrechtsen added, “We face the real prospect of the rule of law giving way to open slather where certain laws apply differently to certain people. Once we go down that path, we are on a slippery slope to becoming a country ruled by the mob with the loudest, most influential voices.”
She is right. We now live in an era when the words of one person, simply by virtue of her sex, can undo the career, reputation and professional prospects of another.
Is it time to start talking about female privilege?
Brittany Higgins’ version of events has dominated the media for two years. Bruce Lehrmann’s likely never will. But now he will have his day in court.
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