Journalist Lisa Wilkinson has denied “going through the motions” in the lead-up to a TV item that aired Brittany Higgins’ allegations she was raped in Parliament House by a fellow Liberal staffer.
Higgins’ alleged rapist Bruce Lehrmann is suing Network Ten and Wilkinson, seeking damages over a broadcast in February 2021 that he claims is defamatory.
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The accuracy and truth of the report on The Project about the rape claims were under further attack as Wilkinson returned to the Federal Court witness box on Friday.
Higgins alleged Lehrmann pinned her down and raped her on the couch of their then-boss Senator Linda Reynolds in March 2019.
He has always denied the allegation, saying no sexual contact occurred.
While grilling Ten producer Angus Llewellyn and Wilkinson this week, Lehrmann’s lawyers have suggested the report on The Project was poorly researched and Higgins’ claims were believed without proper scrutiny.
Matthew Richardson SC said the opening of the program describing a woman who was forced to choose between her career and justice was “completely inconsistent” with a statement provided by the government.
Lisa Wilkinson. Credit: Bianca De Marchi/AAP
That response said Higgins was told there would be no impact on her career as a result of pursuing the allegation.
Wilkinson said the statement “read like a very official response to a very difficult political situation” and she believed Higgins’ career would be impacted by a police investigation.
“It would have been very difficult for the Liberal Party to continue to employ her, when she would be seen as a liability,” she told the court.
Wilkinson added Higgins had also placed pressure on herself “as a result of the workplace culture” at Parliament House and Ten had not aired all of her claims verbatim.
“We excluded things that, we felt, were possibly coloured by her trauma,” she said.
Richardson earlier on Friday pursued Wilkinson about the amount of time Lehrmann was given to respond to the allegations.
The journalist said she was drafting questions on the afternoon of broadcast in the hope Lehrmann would agree to a last-minute interview.
Attempts had been made to contact him on the previous Friday afternoon, with a deadline of 10am Monday.
“I believed 80 hours before broadcast to be a very fair and reasonable time for Mr Lehrmann to respond to us,” Wilkinson said.
Ten’s legal team had provided advice on details that Richardson said could have identified Lehrmann, who was not named in the broadcast.
“I left those decisions to others more qualified than me to decide,” Wilkinson said.
Richardson suggested The Project made no genuine effort to get a response from Lehrmann.
“You were going through the motions … just to cover yourself off for defamation,” he said.
Lehrmann’s other barrister, Steven Whybrow, earlier told the court he would not seek to recall Higgins following a recording revealed by Sky News on Tuesday.
The recording captured Higgins’ lawyer Leon Zwier and others at the Park Hyatt Lobby Bar on December 4 reportedly discussing how she could respond to questions in cross-examination as she gave evidence in the defamation case.
Whybrow said the recording was not useful aside from confirming the accuracy of what was broadcast.
Lehrmann was charged in August 2021 over the alleged rape, but his trial in the ACT Supreme Court was derailed by juror misconduct.
Prosecutors did not seek a second trial, citing concerns for Higgins’ mental health.
Lehrmann is also before Queensland courts accused of raping another woman twice in Toowoomba in October 2021.
He has not entered a plea, but his lawyers have indicated he denies the charges.
If you or someone you know is impacted by sexual assault, domestic or family violence, call 1800RESPECT on 1800 737 732 or visit 1800RESPECT.org.au.