Network Ten has revealed the email its staff sent Bruce Lehrmann ahead of airing a bombshell interview with former Liberal Party staffer Brittany Higgins where she alleged she had been raped in Parliament House.
The email, referred to as part of Ten‘s defence to defamation proceedings launched by Mr Lehrmann in the Federal Court, included a series of questions sent to an email address believed to be controlled by Mr Lehrmann including “Did you rape Brittany Higgins as alleged?” and offered him a chance to tell his side of the story on The Project, where Ms Higgins’ interview was slated to air.
After pleading not guilty to sexually assaulting former colleague Brittany Higgins, Mr Lehrmann stood trial in the ACT Supreme Court before it was aborted due to juror misconduct.
The charges were subsequently dropped by the Director of Public Prosecutions and he has continually denied any allegation he sexually assaulted Ms Higgins at Parliament House in March 2019, and Mr Lehrmann filed a defamation claim shortly afterwards.
Mr Lehrmann is suing journalist Lisa Wilkinson and Network 10, as well as journalist Samantha Maiden and News Corp Australia’s News Life Media over their coverage of the allegations made by Ms Higgins.
Network Ten has filed its defence against Bruce Lehrmann’s defamation claims. Picture: NCA NewsWire / Gary Ramage
In their defence filed with the Federal Court on Tuesday, Ten said it would rely on a defence of truth and qualified privilege.
The broadcaster also says the lawsuit is not maintainable as it was filed beyond the one-year limitation period, given its interview with Ms Higgins – broadcast on February 15, 2021 – is now more than two years old.
Ms Wilkinson has retained her own legal team led by high-profile defamation barrister Sue Chrysanthou SC and has previously filed her defence.
Mr Lehrmann has claimed the segment on The Project broadcast carried four false and defamatory meanings including that he raped Ms Higgins inside Defence Minister Linda Reynolds’ office and that he left her on the couch in a state of undress.
Ten said the broadcast had an average national audience of approximately 726,728, including 129,000 viewers in Sydney and 193,000 in Melbourne.
Mr Lehrmann was not named in any broadcast or articles, but his statement of claim argues his identity would have been known in political circles and was further ascertainable when he was charged and publicly named in August 2021.
Ten has argued in its defence that staff made “reasonable attempts” to get Mr Lehrmann’s side of the story before it broadcast Ms Wilkinson’s interview with Ms Higgins.
Network Ten has revealed the email its staff sent Bruce Lehrmann ahead of the broadcast. Picture: Supplied
In the document, it says a producer called, texted and emailed Mr Lehrmann on five occasions from Friday February 12 to Monday February 15, 2021.
The producer emailed an address for Mr Lehrmann, provided by Ms Higgins’ partner David Sharaz, in which he asked 16 questions including: “Did you take Ms Higgins to Australian Parliament House after the drinks?” and “Did you rape Brittany Higgins as alleged?”
The email, sent on the afternoon of Friday, February 12, from producer Angus Llewellyn said: “I’m producing a story for Network Ten’s The Project.
“The Project has been informed of an alleged rape of Brittany Higgins perpetrated by you within a minister’s office in Australian Parliament House on the evening of 22 March 2019/morning of 23rd March 2019.”
It asked him to respond by 10am the following Monday.
“Had Lehrmann responded to Ten‘s attempts to contact him, Ten would have included Lehrmann’s side of the story, by including his response or the substance of his response, in the matters complained of,” Ten says in its defence.
“Depending on the nature of any response from Lehrmann, Ten may have considered offering him the opportunity to participate in an on-camera interview, which could have been included in the matters complained of or considered delaying publication of the matters complained of to give him an opportunity to respond.”
Ten said Wilkinson and six producers were involved in putting together the story.
After pleading not guilty to sexually assaulting former colleague Brittany Higgins, Mr Lehrmann stood trial in the ACT Supreme Court before it was aborted due to juror misconduct. Picture: NCA NewsWire / Gary Ramage
Ten said its production team communicated with Higgins, starting with an email exchange between Wilkinson and Mr Sharaz on January 18, 2021.
While Ms Wilkinson’s defence, which was filed last week, does not mention Mr Sharaz, Ten’s defence says that he on several occasions exchanged phone calls, texts and emails with Wilkinson over January 18-20.
He was also involved in later face-to-face meetings and texts with producers, the broadcaster said.
The interview was recorded in Sydney on February 2, 2021 in the presence of the network’s senior legal counsel.
Ten says it did not pay Ms Higgins for the interview, outside of covering the cost of her flights and accommodation in Sydney.
Ten claims it conducted extensive checks on claims made by Ms Higgins, including speaking to her former flatmate.
It also says it did not name Mr Lehrmann in the broadcast and referred to him as a “senior male advisor” and “senior staffer”.
It also says before airing the story, the small group working on the story did its best to maintain confidentiality by giving its story the codename “ENVIRO” and kept all documents and scripts off the shared server.
Ten argues it was careful to distinguish between claims and facts and that the story made numerous references to “allegations” and an “alleged rape”.
On February 10, Ten also obtained a signed statement from Ms Higgins in which she said: “To the very best of my knowledge and recollection” the interview was a truthful account of the alleged sexual assault.
Ms Wilkinson is also relying on defences of truth and qualified privilege.
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.
Mr Lehrmann has not yet responded to the allegations contained in the defences filed by Ten and Wilkinson.