Law Analysis

Lehrmann defamation case reopened: Bring on the ‘sunlight’…and popcorn

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(Image by Dan Jensen)

Fresh evidence in the Lehrmann saga points to a free-for-all legal/media playground where Channel Seven allegedly purchased confidential, subpoenaed documents, writes Michelle Pini.

* CONTENT WARNING: This article discusses rape

COMMENTING on “fresh evidence” provided by Network Ten in the Lehrmann v Network Ten defamation trial, Justice Michael Lee said:

“Let sunlight be the best disinfectant.” 

In this latest defamation trial – one of the many in the Lehrmann saga – said "fresh evidence" has seen the case extended at the 11th hour.

SUNLIGHT ON STOKES

Network Ten lawyers produced an affidavit from former Seven Network producer Taylor Auerbach, in which he claims Stokes’ Sunlight program wooed former Liberal staffer Bruce Lehrmann with ‘illicit drugs and prostitutes’  to secure an exclusive interview.

Described as “trivial"  by Lehrmann’s lawyer Matthew Richardson, expenses for which Lehrmann was reimbursed by Seven on a "per diem"  basis – as alleged by Auerbach – include, among other things, a $361 tomahawk steak, a $401 round of golf, accommodation at Randwick for three weeks at $11,738 and eight Thai massages amounting to $10,315.

These latest allegations add to earlier revelations that though Lehrmann had denied receiving any payment for his Spotlight interview, Seven was, in fact, footing the $2,500 per week bill for a luxury rental in Sydney's Northern Beaches for an entire year.

Auerbach has also threatened to sue Lehrmann over the latter's comments in which he denied the Thai masseuse was ordered on his behalf with a Seven credit card. Lehrmann described Auerbach’s statement as “an untrue and bizarre story from a disgruntled ex-Network Seven producer”.

Justice Lee was due to deliver his judgment in the case later this week but has reopened the evidence and delayed his judgment. 

DISINFECTED SPOTLIGHT

It is highly unusual for courts to reopen cases, indicating the “fresh evidence” – which provides details of how Channel Seven managed to access thousands of private text messages of the alleged victim in Lehrmann's criminal trial, Brittany Higgins – is indeed compelling and may be instrumental to the trial outcome.

Bruce Lehrmann has denied raping Brittany Higgins and the original criminal trial was aborted due to juror misconduct. He has also denied Auerbach's explosive allegations.

Lehrmann is charged with two other, unrelated counts of sexual assault in Toowoomba. 

We will not speculate on aborted rape trials, defamation bonanzas or the guilt of alleged perpetrators. However, it is our role to report the facts.  

The currently available facts concerning Lehrmann v Network Ten and Lisa Wilkinson indicate a free-for-all legal/media playground where those with bottomless pockets allegedly purchase confidential, subpoenaed documents, possibly influencing the course of justice, and then lie about it. 

Who knew you could report facts without bribery and corruption?

FRESHLY INFECTED MEDIA

When the UK News International phone hacking scandal revealed, in 2011, that Murdoch-owned News of the World had bribed police in the pursuit of a story involving the murder of a young woman, it seemed as though an ethical line in the sand had been drawn for media organisations around the world.

The scandal resulted in the closure of News of the World and the resignation of London's Metropolitan Police Commissioner Paul Stephenson, among other high-profile resignations, prosecutions and alleged suicides. While the FBI also investigated News Corp over its corrupt activity in the U.S., there don't appear to have been any significant sanctions against individual members of the Murdoch family.

Indeed, it was soon evident that these and other corruption scandals, momentous though they were, amounted to minor glitches in the ongoing decline of the Fourth Estate. Instead of a line in the sand, perhaps the News Corp scandal became the benchmark for organised trade in confidential personal information by wealthy media corporations.

WALKLEY SCOOPS

We cannot speculate if the new information on the lengths to which Stokes’ Channel 7 was prepared to go to secure Lehrmann’s testimony in this case, is accurate. Or whether Lehrmann’s alleged demands in exchange for the interview – which, though it was later revoked, was a Walkley Scoop of the Year finalist – speak to his character, guilt or otherwise.

We can report, however, that since Lehrmann denied under oath that he provided any leaked documents or took payment from Seven and since Justice Lee will make his determination as to whose evidence is preferred given the conflicting evidence in this case, Lehrmann’s credibility as a witness is central to the outcome of his defamation trial.

And it may not bode well for Bruce.

SUNLIGHT REQUIRED

Lehrmann's guilt or otherwise in the original rape trial notwithstanding, the following questions remain unanswered.

  • If the allegations against Lehrmann are correct, how was he able to copy confidential court documents and have them on hand in case a media organisation wished to purchase them?
  • The AFP has now referred the leak of sensitive legal material cited in the Spotlight Lehrmann interview to the National Anti-Corruption Commission to determine whether its own officers were involved but, did they investigate the leak at the time? 
  • Why did the law officer charged with ensuring the integrity of the original trial, Walter Sofronoff, think it perfectly reasonable to provide confidential court documentation during the inquiry to The Australian’s Janet Alberechtsen – via more than 50 phone calls, text messages and a private lunch?
  • Why is it still business as usual for both Sofronoff and Albrechtsen?
  • Why have no sanctions been taken against any government officer following the indiscriminate cleaning of the alleged crime scene — the Parliament House office of Senator Linda Reynolds?
  • As senior media adviser for then-Defence Minister Reynolds, Lehrmann also had access to top-secret documents (unrelated to this case) concerning Australia’s national security, with which he had been careless at the time. Is anyone looking into whether this information may have since fallen into the wrong hands?

Finally, is there an insidious dark state, comprised of media actors, government officials and wealthy vested interests that operate above the law and protect their own?

If you would like to speak to someone about sexual violence, please call the 1800 Respect hotline on 1800 737 732 or chat online

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You can follow managing editor Michelle Pini on Twitter @vmp9. Follow Independent Australia on Twitter/X @independentaus and Facebook HERE.

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