Lisa Wilkinson claims police were concerned there was a cover-up at Parliament House and is using defences of truth and qualified privilege to defend claims of defamation brought by Bruce Lehrmann.
She will seek to prove the former political staffer sexually assaulted his then colleague Brittany Higgins, court documents show.
Mr Lehrmann launched defamation proceedings in the Federal Court in February against two media companies after the criminal trial over the allegation was aborted following misconduct by a jury member.
He had pleaded not guilty to the charge, which has since been dropped by the DPP, and has continued to deny any allegation he sexually assaulted Ms Higgins at Parliament House in March 2019.
Mr Lehrmann launched legal action against Ms Wilkinson and Network 10, as well as journalist Samantha Maiden and News Corp Australia’s News Life Media over coverage of Ms Higgins’ allegations in February 2021.
The veteran journalist has retained her own legal team including high-profile defamation barrister Sue Chrysanthou SC in the matter.
Lisa Wilkinson has dumped Network Ten’s legal team and is funding her own defence.
Mr Lehrmann claims the articles and broadcasts conveyed four defamatory meanings that he “raped Brittany Higgins in Defence Minister Linda Reynolds’ office in 2019” when they were aired in February 2021, although he was not named.
He says the articles defamed him by implying he “continued to rape Brittany Higgins after she woke up mid-rape and she was crying and telling him to stop” and “left her on a couch in a state of undress”.
Ms Wilkinson is relying on defences of truth and qualified privilege.
“Lehrmann’s conduct described in the preceding particulars amounted to rape of Higgins in Parliament House in 2019,” the defence says.
While Ms Wilkinson does not deny the central defamatory claim of rape was conveyed, she said she cannot admit that Mr Lehrmann “was reasonably identified by any viewer” when her broadcast aired.
“She sought particulars of identification from Lehrmann through her solicitors on 15 February 2023 and those particulars have not been sufficiently supplied,” her defence states.
The DPP dropped the charge against Bruce Lehrmann after the trial was abandoned. Picture: NCA NewsWire/Gary Ramage
Mr Lehrmann was not named in any broadcast or articles until he was charged in August 2021, but his statement of claim argues his identity would have been known in political circles.
Ms Wilkinson’s defence said she gave the political staffer “multiple opportunities” to respond to her before the broadcast.
“Each such approach … was timely, fair and reasonable, but despite that, Lehrmann elected not to respond at all,” the defence states.
Her defence says an allegation of recklessness is “baseless, unjustified and unsupported by any fact”.
In her defence of qualified privilege, Ms Wilkinson argues that she acted reasonable as an “experienced, accomplished and careful journalist”.
“Wilkinson understood and confirmed inquiries were made in relation to the allegations made by Higgins to the Prime Minister, Linda Reynolds, Michaelia Cash, Fiona Brown, AFP officers, the Canberra Rape Crisis Centre, Lehrmann and other parliamentary staffers and advisers,” the defence reads.
Brittany Higgins accused Lehrmann of sexual assault, a charge that was dropped. Picture: NCA NewsWire/Gary Ramage
At the time of publication, Ms Wilkinson had multiple sources including Ms Higgins, a photo of Ms Higgins’ bruised leg, a timeline document, emails, text messages and multiple statements.
Her lawyers said she underwent “extensive” fact checking for weeks, including some done by Network Ten’s senior lawyers, but credited Ms Higgins as a “credible witness”.
While undergoing fact-checking, Ms Wilkinson says she understood there were constant efforts to check the “veracity of allegations made by Ms Higgins” and was satisfied her claims were truthful.
But as part of those inquiries, police said they were concerned a “cover-up” occurred in relation to the allegations, and they were met with “roadblocks from Parliament House” while attempting to obtain information.
The Channel 10 star has also denied she sought to exploit the allegations for professional gain.
Mr Lehrmann is being represented by Mark O’Brien legal.
Mr O’Brien, whose law firm represents Ben Roberts-Smith VC in his defamation battle with Fairfax/Nine newspapers, confirmed in December he had joined Mr Lehrmann’s legal team.