Politics Analysis

Seven's disgraceful Lehrmann interview a lowpoint for mainstream media

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(Screenshot via YouTube | 7News 'Spotlight')

The Lehrmann 'Spotlight' interview saga has pulled back the curtain on the shameful truth behind journalism used for public relations, Dr Victoria Fielding writes.

* CONTENT WARNING: This article discusses rape

JUSTICE MICHAEL LEE has described Bruce Lehrmann's defamation trial as "returning to the lion's den to retrieve his hat" and has found that Lehrmann – on the balance of probabilities – raped Brittany Higgins. This judgement brings much-needed closure to Higgins, her supporters and women across the globe who are fed up with men avoiding justice for sexual assault.

As the ramifications of Lehrmann’s defamation case continue to reverberate, focus should be put on the conduct of Channel 7’s Spotlight, a show which unethically platformed Lehrmann’s public relations campaign in the lead-up to his defamation trial.

Former Spotlight producer Taylor Auerbach’s bombshell revelations about the conduct of Spotlight producers in securing an interview with alleged rapist Bruce Lehrmann revealed the intensely unethical culture in which “journalism” is produced at this program.

What is even more problematic is what the resulting television show reveals about the way that so-called journalists use news media as a form of public relations.

News publisher William Randolph Hearst coined the famous phrase:

'News is something somebody doesn't want printed; all else is advertising.'

Considering Lehrmann would have been thrilled with what Spotlight published about him, it is clear that it was produced in Lehrmann’s interest, not the public interest.

Spotlight presents what it is doing as hard-hitting public-interest journalism. Spotlight's executive producer Mark Llewellyn has been quoted as saying it is not an “amoral show” and that he respects the values of telling stories “honestly and fearlessly”.

He has also been quoted – since leaving Seven in the wake of the Auebrech bombshells – as saying, “We must fight hard but we must never lie or deceive”.

If Spotlight really were hard-hitting journalism produced honestly and fearlessly, the show would interrogate its interviewees – would act as watchdogs – to help discover the truth.

Yet in reality, whether it be interviews with brain surgeon Charlie Teo after he was found guilty of unsatisfactory professional conduct, Craig McLachlan after he was acquitted of indecent assault or serial fraudster Melissa Caddick’s husband Anthony Koletti, Spotlight is known for being “used” by scandalous characters as a form of “reputation rescue”.

Continuing this trend, Spotlight’s interview with Lehrmann showed that reputational management was the goal and truth was the least of their concerns. In his defamation trial against Network Ten and Lisa Wilkinson, Lehrmann was found to be dishonest and even admitted lying during the Spotlight interview.

These lies were never exposed by Spotlight because the show’s purpose was not to interrogate Lehrmann but to create a public relations narrative to assist in his defamation trial. The first objective of Lehrmann’s Spotlight public relations narrative was to frame him as the hard-done-by innocent victim of a false rape accusation.

This victim frame was created by painting Lehrmann’s family as welfare-dependent and claiming his life was so destroyed that he had been “living under a rock” since being identified as the man alleged to have raped Brittany Higgins.

Spotlight’s producers, of course, knew what the real truth was. Lehrmann was not living under a rock but was living it up on alcohol-fuelled benders with cocaine and prostitutes and a year’s rent paid for by Channel 7. This truthful story wasn’t told during the interview.

The image of Lehrmann hosting raucous karaoke parties, which he continues to do in a multi-million dollar home lent to him by yet another rich mate, clearly doesn’t suit his victim image-making.

The second objective of Lehrmann’s public relations narrative was to paint Higgins’ so-called false accusation as the work of nefarious media elites who supposedly helped her to further the #MeToo movement.

Through this story, Lehrmann – with help from Spotlight – not only worked to smear Higgins’ reputation but, even more importantly, worked for Lehrmann’s defamation trial, to destroy the credibility of journalists at Network 10 and News.com.au who at that time Lehrmann was hoping to procure huge sums from in defamation trials.

When asked during his interview why Higgins would fabricate a rape allegation against him, Lehrmann was given a platform to suggest that Higgins first made up the rape to protect her job, even though there has never been any evidence presented that her job was at risk.

He then claimed two years later that Higgins brought up the allegation again, in his words, because “media elites… latched on to this” to “weaponise it”, to “advance a movement”.

Later in the interview, he said he was “cast aside for a greater movement”, saying that:

“It's pretty obvious that there's a link or a connection here with the #MeToo movement.”

Spotlight went all in with this supposed false accusation cooked up by feminist media elites. This victim framing has helped Lehrmann to become a cult legend in the toxic men’s rights movement, heralded by a cheer squad of women-haters like Bettina Arndt as evidence men are the true victims of sexual assault allegations made about them.

Rather than questioning how Higgins could possibly have known her accusation would create the cultural storm that it did, Spotlight cut together footage of The Project’s Lisa Wilkinson and Angus Llewellyn’s pre-interview meeting with Brittany Higgins and her partner David Sharaz to manipulatively imply that The Project put words in Higgins’ mouth to advance a feminist cause.

Auerbach claims that this footage – along with a treasure trove of other evidence – was given to the program by Lehrmann. Photographs of the laptop containing leaked texts appear to suggest Auerbach is correct.

Lehrmann has, of course, denied he provided this evidence and in doing so broke the Harman undertaking by using evidence tendered in a court case for other purposes. Lehrmann denies everything he has ever been accused of because, of course, he does.

Spotlight producers apparently never questioned the ethics of using Higgins’ private court evidence against her. Whatever helped Lehrmann’s public relations story was happily and gratefully – let’s use Lehrmann’s word here – “weaponised”.

Spotlight continued the theme of blaming “media elites” for Higgins’ accusations in their second Lehrmann program, which featured Lehrmann’s former boss Linda Reynolds and his lawyer Steve Whybrow.

The blatant hypocrisy of this one-sidedness was apparently lost on “journalist” Liam Bartlett when he said reporting about Higgins’ allegations raised “questions about the conduct of some reporters” because “some of them get too close”. He then asked if “impartiality and the presumption of innocence [was] lost when it came to the accused man”.

This reporter thought of this accusation of “lost impartiality” and of journalists getting too close when Spotlight-turncoat Taylor Auerbach gave evidence in the Lehrmann defamation trial. Auerbach revealed that in courting Lehrmann for an interview, Lehrmann said he did not want to be asked what happened “that night in Canberra” – the night he was accused of raping Higgins. This apparently raised no red flags with the Spotlight team.

Auerbach’s evidence also contained text messages between him and Spotlight producer Llewellyn which exposed their panic at learning Lehrmann was being accused of rape by an alleged victim in a Toowoomba court.

This reporter imagines their concern was not that they might be giving an alleged rapist a platform to smear his accuser and the journalists who reported her story. Rather, this new rape allegation was possibly going to derail what Spotlight producer Steve Jackson had described as “the most amazing thing on Australian TV ever”.

If the most amazing thing to ever be on Australian TV is an alleged rapist crafting a manipulative public relations narrative to benefit his defamation case against real journalists who reported the story in the public interest, then that speaks volumes about Australian media.

Everyone involved in the making of the Lehrmann Spotlight episodes has no right to call themselves journalists. They have no right to claim they did anything but assist an alleged rapist to smear Higgins, the woman whose rape allegation was deemed credible enough by ACT prosecutors to proceed with a trial.

In doing so, Spotlight and Channel 7 not only misrepresented the costs they had expended to secure the Lehrmann interview but hid from their viewers the true nature of Lehrmann’s behaviour through their dealings with him, manipulating the public in the process.

In learning that Channel 7 had paid Lehrmann’s rent for a year, the prestigious Walkley Foundation revoked its finalist award for Scoop of the Year. That the story – a blatant act of public relations – was considered meritorious journalism to qualify in the first place is a stain on the entire profession.

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

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

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