Politics Analysis

Media’s weaponisation of Brittany Higgins’ rape allegations

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The mainstream media was quick to attack Brittany Higgins after she exposed the truth (Image by Dan Jensen)

The media campaign against Brittany Higgins was a revenge tactic by the Murdoch press after she exposed the Liberal Party's ignorance of women's issues, writes Dr Victoria Fielding.

*CONTENT WARNING: This article discusses rape

WHEN BRITTANY HIGGINS took her allegations of rape to the media in 2021, she used her story as a weapon in an uphill battle to seek justice. The problem women have in picking up a weapon is that it can be grabbed from their hands and used against them. That is exactly what the Murdoch media is doing to Higgins and anyone who supported her.

Women face enormous hurdles in taking allegations about sexual assault to the police and then to court. Almost 90% of sexual assault victims do not go to the police. The reason for this is that they are concerned their allegations won’t be taken seriously or believed and that they might suffer personal or professional repercussions for reporting the perpetrator.

Brittany Higgins was one of these 90% of women for two years after she alleged she was raped by her senior colleague, Bruce Lehrmann, in a Parliament House office on 23 March 2019. She did initially go to the police on the same day Lehrmann was sacked, allegedly for a security breach, on 1 April 2019. However, she says she feared if she pursued the allegations further, her job was at risk.

For almost two years after the alleged incident, Higgins continued to work for the Liberal Government, campaigning for them at the 2019 Election and then working for then Employment Minister, Michaelia Cash.

By February 2021, after she saw the public response to historic allegations reported in the media about former Attorney General Christian Porter, Higgins said she decided she wanted to tell her story. She approached journalists Samantha Maiden, who wrote about her allegations for News.com, and Lisa Wilkinson, who interviewed her on Channel 10’s The Project.

Four days after the initial media reports, Higgins reopened the Federal Police’s investigation into the alleged rape, making a formal complaint and asking the police to investigate the crime.  

Higgins told her story to the media and re-engaged the police investigation to bring about change. This was a brave decision Higgins made for herself and to help others avoid what she alleged she had been through.

In court, she explained why she went public, saying:

“I loved my party, I loved the Liberal Party. It sounds absurd. I didn’t necessarily want to hurt them. I wanted to reform this issue.”

Remember, Higgins was a media advisor. She did not take these actions for political revenge. She knew shining a light on the situation was the quickest way to put the issue on the public agenda. She no longer wanted to hide what allegedly happened to her. She wanted to do something about it.

Shining a light worked. Just over a fortnight after the initial media stories, Higgins addressed the March 4 Justice rally in Canberra. Nationwide rallies sprang from outrage at Higgins’ story and the allegations made against Christian Porter. Childhood sexual abuse survivor and activist Grace Tame spoke at the Tasmanian rally. Women across Australia screamed enough is enough.

In helping to spark this movement, Higgins inadvertently highlighted just how uninterested the then-Liberal Government and particularly Prime Minister Scott Morrison was in reforming the Liberal Party, or taking meaningful action to address gendered violence, or supporting female equity more broadly.

Morrison famously told the tens of thousands of women marching for an end to gendered violence that they were lucky they were “not met with bullets”. Higgins’ treatment by her Liberal colleagues became yet more evidence of the Liberal Party’s “women problem”. This problem contributed to the Liberal Party’s 2022 election loss, with polls showing only 21% of women planned to vote for the Liberal Party.

As well as the election of 14 new female MPs, the new Labor Government achieved gender equity with 53% women. The women of Australia used democracy to show they wanted change.

When Higgins made the brave decision to publicly tell her story – in the media and to the police – she could never have known the public would react the way it did and the political repercussions for the government she worked for. When Higgins put the issue of gendered violence on the national agenda, it resonated with women and men who want to see reform.

This successful activism, unsurprisingly, made Higgins an enemy of conservative media.

Just how much the Murdoch media resent Higgins and her brave decision to tell her story has been on disgusting display over the past fortnight. Using leaked text messages from Higgins’ phone which are believed to have been part of evidence gathered during Lehrmann’s criminal trial, The Australian and Sky News have led a concerted and at times unhinged campaign of over 100 articles in a fortnight alleging Labor Senator Katy Gallagher and Higgins’ partner, David Sharaz, conspired with Higgins to, as Janet Albrechtsen claims, ‘use the media, instead of the criminal justice system, to press their case’.

What Albrechtsen and other Murdoch hacks ignore, twist and misrepresent in this propaganda campaign is that Higgins decided to tell her story, and that was her decision – her empowering decision – alone. Albrechtsen also misses the point that Higgins did not “use” the media instead of the criminal justice system. Higgins took her case to the police and then to court. The trial ended in a mistrial thanks to a rogue juror bringing in outside material. Higgins was deemed too mentally vulnerable to continue the justice process. Did Albrechtsen miss that part?

Not satisfied with unethically publishing leaked evidence that breaches Higgins’ privacy, an act which is also possibly in contempt of court, The Australian dug the depths of its moral-sewer even further by reporting about a leaked draft statement of claim Higgins used in her confidential settlement with the federal government workers' compensation authority, Comcare.

This media campaign against Higgins, which is disappointingly flowing into other media outlets, including the ABC, shows that, unlike Higgins, the Murdoch media is hellbent on revenge. They want revenge against Higgins for helping to ignite national recognition amongst women that a Liberal Party does not serve their interests. And, if at the same time, they can scare other victims of alleged sexual abuse from taking their cases to the media and the justice system, that seems to be a bonus in their eyes.

If you would like to speak to someone about sexual violence, please call the 1800 Respect hotline on 1800 737 732 or chat online, Lifeline on 13 11 14 or the Suicide Call Back Service on 1300 659 467.

Dr Victoria Fielding is an Independent Australia columnist. You can follow Victoria on Twitter @DrVicFielding.

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