Australian journalism, politics, and legal system facing widespread issues due to ongoing MeToo case

A long ongoing case has both caused and revealed corruption in all areas of public life

In Greek mythology Heracles (Hercules in Latin) was tasked with cleaning out the Augean stables in a single day.
Augeas was a Greek king who owned large herds of animals that resided in his palatial stables. They produced extraordinary amounts of dung, and the stables had not been cleaned for years.
Heracles completed his allotted task in a day – but King Augeas refused to pay him. Heracles killed the king, and went into exile.
The Brittany Higgins #MeToo case in Australia still awaits its Heracles – in the meantime, the prodigious pile of dung that it has generated grows exponentially higher by the day.
The sordid saga is Australia’s most infamous #MeToo case. It has dominated the mass media, the legal system, and politics in this country for the past few years – both causing and revealing corruption within each of these areas of Australian public life.
It has destroyed the reputations and careers of prominent journalists, politicians, judges, and lawyers – whilst at the same time transforming both its protagonists, Brittany Higgins and Bruce Lehrmann, into, at the end of the day, rather grubby and flawed celebrities.
It commenced in March 2019, when two drunk, unknown twenty-something political staffers – Higgins and Lehrmann – decided to go back to Parliament House in Canberra after a regular Saturday night of excessive drinking at nearby bars.
Parliament House had long been a favored after-hours sexual trysting location for young political staffers, but both Higgins and Lehrmann have subsequently maintained, unconvincingly, that this was not their intent.

Higgins claimed that Lehrmann raped her in a minister’s office (that of Senator Linda Reynolds, for whom they worked) to which they had improperly gained access, while Lehrmann has steadfastly denied that any sex, consensual or otherwise, took place.
On Monday, in the Federal Court in Sydney, Justice Michael Lee handed down his judgment in defamation proceedings brought by Lehrmann against Channel 10 and television personality Lisa Wilkinson – who broadcast the sensational television interview in early 2021 in which Higgins first publicly alleged that Lehrmann had raped her in Parliament House.
Justice Lee, one of the few lawyers involved in the Higgins saga to have acted with complete propriety and objectivity, made damning findings about both Higgins and Lehrmann – describing them as “unreliable witnesses” who had told deliberate lies – and found that Channel 10 and Wilkinson had acted unreasonably and in a “grossly improper and unjustifiable way.”
Justice Lee’s assessment of the credibility of all the major protagonists in the Higgins saga is undoubtedly correct.
Notwithstanding this uniformly negative appraisal, Justice Lee found – on the civil, balance of probabilities, onus of proof – that Lehrmann had raped Higgins in 2019, because he had been reckless as to whether the inebriated Higgins had consented to having sex with him.
Lee was at pains to point out that this finding differed from a finding of guilt in a criminal trial – where the more onerous “beyond reasonable doubt” onus of proof applies. It is also clear that if Lehrmann had admitted to having sex with Higgins, he would have been in a better position to defend his conduct.
In making this crucial factual finding, Justice Lee disbelieved the accounts given by both Higgins and Lehrmann of what had occurred on the night in question. In particular, he rejected Higgins’ evidence that she had repeatedly told Lehrmann that she did not consent to having sex with her.
It followed that Justice Lee entered judgment in favor of Channel 10 and Wilkinson – because their truth defense had been made out. Lehrmann will no doubt appeal the decision – given that the legal costs of all parties probably exceed $5 million.
The defamation trial presided over by Justice Lee revealed in graphic terms the unprofessional and unprincipled conduct engaged in by those media organizations that became involved in the Higgins affair in a partisan fashion.
Lisa Wilkinson’s interview with Higgins in February 2021 – which turned Higgins into a #MeToo icon – was hardly an exercise in journalism at all. Wilkinson was committed to the #MeToo cause and to bringing down the conservative Morrison government, and Justice Lee found that Higgins’ allegations were not tested at all – especially her now demonstrably false assertion that the government conspired to cover up her rape.
Wilkinson’s slanted interview unsurprisingly later won a prestigious award, and in her televised acceptance speech in June 2022 she reiterated the truth of Higgins’ allegations – thereby causing Lehrmann’s upcoming criminal trial for rape in the ACT Supreme Court to be postponed, and making it difficult, if not impossible, for him to receive a fair trial before a jury.
Justice Lee found that no reputable journalist could have believed that Wilkinson’s speech did not amount to a contempt of court.
And, at one point in her cross-examination, Wilkinson – who Justice Lee described ironically as a “fourth estate eminence grise” – accused Lehrmann’s lawyer of “making me sound like a tabloid journalist” – a comment that provoked laughter from serious journalists.
Wilkinson fell out with Channel 10 as a result of the aftermath of her speech, and she has not appeared on television for the past few years. Justice Lee’s scathing and apt criticisms of Wilkinson will probably ensure that her “journalistic” career will not be revived anytime soon.
After Lehrmann’s rape trial was aborted as a result of misconduct by a juror, Lehrmann agreed to give a tell-all television interview to the Channel 7 ‘Spotlight’ program, which was broadcast in June 2023.
This was hardly surprising – both Higgins and Lehrmann are addicted to the celebrity culture that created them and continues to sustain them in their quest for perpetual celebrity status.
Lehrmann’s ‘Spotlight’ interview was just as self-serving and flawed as Higgins’ interview with Wilkinson had been – perhaps even more so because Lehrmann is the more determined liar – and his defamation trial revealed squalid details about the lengths to which Channel 7 was willing to go to procure it.
Bear in mind that Justice Lee found that Lehrmann was “a fundamentally dishonest liar” who “gave false evidence about a litany of matters.”
Evidence presented at the trial showed that Channel 7 paid the rent on an expensive apartment for Lehrmann for over 12 months, as well as paying for meals at fashionable restaurants and numerous interstate trips.

More sensationally, a former Channel 7 employee who acted as Lehrmann’s “minder” on the ‘Spotlight’ program testified that Channel 7 paid $10,000 for “Asian massages” for Lehrmann, as well as reimbursing him for cocaine that he purchased.
The “minder” also testified that Lehrmann supplied Channel 7 with confidential documents obtained during his criminal proceedings – thereby committing a contempt of court. Justice Lee found that this allegation was made out. Both the “minder” and producer of ‘Spotlight’ recently departed Channel 7.
So much for what the Higgins saga tells us about contemporary investigative journalism in Australia.
The story has had an even more destructive impact on the legal system in Australia, particularly in the Australian Capital Territory – the nation’s capital.
After Wilkinson delivered her infamous televised speech, and after Prime Minister Scott Morrison delivered his apology to Higgins in federal parliament in early 2022 – in which he implicitly accepted that she had been raped – it was virtually impossible for Lehrmann to receive a fair trial before a jury in his criminal rape case.
Nevertheless, the Lehrmann criminal matter went to trial in the ACT Supreme Court in late 2022.
During her cross-examination at the trial, Higgins was granted the extraordinary indulgence of not having to appear for some days – even though no application by her was made in open court. And when the jury was unable to reach a verdict after some days’ deliberation, it was not discharged, as many lawyers thought it should have been.
By chance, a court official discovered that a juror had improperly accessed material from the internet – in clear breach of the trial judge’s repeated directions, and the trial was aborted.
Of course, the fact that modern jurors pay no heed