The third week of evidence in Bruce Lehrmann’s defamation case against Network Ten highlights the ugly collision of media and politics. By Rick Morton.

‘Please don’t make me sound like a cheap tabloid journalist’

Lisa Wilkinson and lawyer Sue Chrysanthou, SC.
Lisa Wilkinson and lawyer Sue Chrysanthou, SC.
Credit: AAP Image / Bianca De Marchi

Late on a Sunday afternoon in mid-February 2021, the media director for then prime minister Scott Morrison phoned a producer for Channel 10’s The Project. In the call, Andrew Carswell unleashed an angry tirade designed to prevent the program from naming names in an “explosive” interview with Brittany Higgins.

Angus Llewellyn, a producer for the show, had been working on the half-hour broadcast for almost four weeks. It was due to air in 24 hours, with allegations Higgins was raped in Parliament House by a Coalition staffer.

One focus of the call, Llewellyn said, was the impact the story might have on Fiona Brown, who was chief of staff in the office where the rape was alleged to have happened.

“I do not now recall what Mr Carswell said exactly, but I recall that he yelled at me,” Llewellyn said in an affidavit filed to the Federal Court of Australia, part of the defamation suit against Network Ten and presenter Lisa Wilkinson.

“His entire focus was that the story could potentially paint Ms Brown, who he called ‘a legend’ of the party, in a poor light. He did not seem to me to be concerned by the allegation that a rape had allegedly occurred in a Minister’s office.

“He was furious at the thought that we may name Ms Brown.”

Former staffer Bruce Lehrmann, who was not named in the broadcast, vehemently denies he raped Higgins or that the pair had any sexual contact whatsoever. A criminal retrial of the matter was abandoned due to juror misconduct and later mental health concerns. Lehrmann is suing Network Ten, claiming the program ruined his career and caused him immense psychological harm.

As the defamation trial worked through its third week of evidence, attention turned from Brittany Higgins’s parents to key personnel at The Project. What was explored were the messy, mostly hidden, realities of journalism and politics. The collision of these two theatres of life is often ugly.

Llewellyn was brought on to the Higgins story by Lisa Wilkinson, after she texted him on January 19, 2021: “I have an explosive political story for Sunday Project… and we’re going huge with it. March release. I have told Craig I only want to work with you on it.”

Within a week, Llewellyn said he “attended a lunch with Ms Wilkinson on her boat” and they discussed the need to meet Brittany Higgins and her partner, David Sharaz, face-to-face.

The next day, January 27, all four met in a room of The Darling hotel in Pyrmont. The conversation lasted about five hours. Higgins attended that meeting with some text messages and photos she said would corroborate her allegations, or parts of them. She told Llewellyn and Wilkinson she was missing large swaths of documentary evidence because her phone had been “wiped”.

Matthew Richardson, SC, acting for Bruce Lehrmann, insisted it should have been obvious to Llewellyn that Higgins had been able to save some material she thought would be helpful without having to turn over everything in her phone.

Richardson said the inference, made by Higgins and Sharaz, that the federal government possibly intervened to have the phone’s contents deleted through a “hack”, or maybe by accident due to Defence Department software, was nonsensical.

At 8.45am, while Higgins and Sharaz travelled to Sydney for the meeting with The Project, a screenshot of an original photo of a bruise on Higgins’s leg was taken. This screenshot was sent between Higgins and Llewellyn that same day, using Apple’s AirDrop feature.

“If you had looked at the date and the time stamp,” Richardson said, “you knew she would have to have created a screenshot that morning.”

Llewellyn said this did not raise any issues, because “she had said before she’d had problems with her phone, which I thought tended to sound like her stuff-up”.

Eventually Justice Michael Lee intervened with a question of his own.

“There may have been other problems with the phone, but one thing was clear to you, wasn’t it, that whatever photographs had gone … the original photograph was extant on the 27th of January 2021 at 8.45am and instead of you being provided the original of that photograph, you were provided with a screenshot,” he said.

Almost immediately the question was scuttled by an objection from Sue Chrysanthou, SC, acting for Lisa Wilkinson.

Justice Lee withdrew the question.

Four days after the meeting with Higgins, on January 31, 2021, Wilkinson messaged Llewellyn with her concerns as they drafted questions for the upcoming interview.

“I want to zero in a little on this whole phone thing,” she said in the message.

“Have a look at my questions I’ve just added. I need to know what Vodafone are saying about her phone going to black. And if she says she took screenshots of crucial messages she now no longer has, how come she still has the bruise shot? I’m confused on this point.

“And why is she delaying or at least appears to be delaying getting answers on that?”

The story of the phone is one piece of a laborious cross-examination of Angus Llewellyn, focused on many such alleged inconsistencies between what Brittany Higgins told The Project and what appeared to have been refuted or questioned before the program aired.

Richardson accused Llewellyn of failing to make every possible attempt to contact Bruce Lehrmann before the show aired, although the producer had sent detailed questions to Lehrmann’s email address on February 12, 2021, three days before broadcast.

“I had his correct email address. I don’t have to send out smoke signals and, you know, be sending out a paper airplane. I had the right email address,” Llewellyn said.

Richardson put a series of propositions to the producer and had him agree to each one.

“Mr Llewellyn, you knew at this point that Mr Lehrmann was in his mid 20s. You knew this was an allegation of the most serious kind. There were no corroborating witnesses in the room. There was no recording of what happened in the room. There was no medical report. There was no admission, or admission from anyone,” he said.

“There were just two people in a room behind closed doors, correct?”

Llewellyn, not for the first time in his cross-examination, responded in a way that drew the ire of counsel.

“Doors,” he said. “Is that plural?”

Richardson was shocked: “Is that a serious answer to my question?”

Earlier in the trial, Justice Lee made a similar remark when Llewellyn was asked if he knew David Sharaz had a “political agenda” – having told the producer he intended to help Labor pursue the issue in parliament.

“Uh, maybe,” Llewellyn said.

Llewellyn was grilled about the timing of questions that were put to key subjects of the Higgins story, especially Bruce Lehrmann, and was asked if he pushed for a delay to preserve the exclusivity of the story.

He said it was because he had a duty of care to Higgins and did not want people finding out about her allegations before she was ready for them to be aired.

“I want to suggest to you that the reason why you didn’t send out these requests until late on the Friday, when you knew a weekend intervened before the broadcast scheduled for the Monday, was a commercial reason,” Richardson said.

Llewellyn said: “No, that’s not how journalism works.” In fact, he said, the time left for Lehrmann to answer was “super reasonable”.

Richardson suggested Llewellyn was “not being frank with the court”. Later, after Justice Lee asked for clarification on his evidence, Llewellyn agreed commercial reasons were a factor and there was “more than one reason” for wanting to tightly control who knew about the story before it aired.

A key element of the report involved the process by which Higgins’s complaint was handled by then defence industry minister Linda Reynolds’ chief of staff, Fiona Brown. These questions later extended to the minister herself and to Higgins’s subsequent boss, Senator Michaelia Cash, and her chief of staff, Daniel Try.

Higgins covertly recorded two conversations in the latter office, one in person with Try and, a week later, a phone call with both Try and Cash, where she doubled-down on her decision to quit politics.

The Project aired 10 days after the second recording was made, and the recording was sent to Llewellyn to listen to as part of the episode planning. In it, Cash and Try say all the right things: they offer to personally go with Higgins to report the alleged rape, if that is what she chooses; they offer a potential job transfer to Brisbane so she never has to work in Parliament House again; they offer support.

Higgins told The Project that in both Reynolds’ and Cash’s offices the real implications for her career were implied and these attempts at support were done to “tick a box” and move on. She was young, Llewellyn observed, and scared.

Detailed questions from Llewellyn to these players were never answered and instead he missed a call from Scott Morrison’s media director, Andrew Carswell, after 4pm on Sunday, February 14, 2021. Carswell provided a statement on behalf of the Morrison government, in lieu of responses from Fiona Brown or others. The response contained a section marked “background”, which is traditionally understood in journalism as information that can be used but not attributed to any person or office. This information included a parliamentary version of an HR report from Finance on March 29, 2019, that showed some support had been offered to Higgins at the time.

Llewellyn was not inclined to place much weight on it.

“It’s an underhanded, strange thing that political people do,” he said, referring to the “background” information. “It’s quite different having Mr Carswell telling me that than Ms Brown. So he would say that, yes. No, I did not believe him.”

Chrysanthou, for Wilkinson, intervened to explain the covert recordings played in court showed both Try and Cash previously knew about the alleged incident with Higgins. Their surprise on February 5, 2021, was due to being given additional details.

“Ms Higgins should be believed on her oath when she said in October 2019 there was an inquiry from a Canberra press person, that at that time she was working for Minister Cash and the chief of staff handled the situation, and they were told what the allegations were. They spoke to Mrs Reynolds’ office and they knew that Mr Lehrmann was the person who had been exposed,” she said.

Defence departmental liaison officer Christopher Payne gave evidence on Monday morning that he had spoken to Brown and Higgins in the days after the March 23, 2019, security breach and alleged rape.

The chief of staff came to him and said “you’re never going to believe this” before explaining Lehrmann and Higgins had come back to Parliament House drunk at the weekend and Higgins had later been found “in a state of undress”.

Payne testified that Brown said she would try to get the CCTV footage to figure out what had happened. Later, he saw a visibly distressed Higgins and either he or she started a conversation where he asked her what was wrong.

Higgins began providing the details of her alleged assault when Payne asked her directly if it was rape.

“And her response was, ‘I could not have consented. It would have been like fucking a log,’ ” he said.

Lisa Wilkinson, the second respondent in Lehrmann’s defamation action, took the witness stand on Thursday morning. She said the Higgins she was dealing with was a young woman who was speaking in full detail for the first time about an alleged sexual assault.

“She was talking about her own sexual assault and if you’ve ever spoken to survivors of sexual assault, these are very difficult conversations to have,” Wilkinson said.

“There was a lot more that needed to be done. I was trying to be as sensitive as possible, given the subject matter.”

Wilkinson was pressed almost immediately on her decision to speak about the “courageous” Brittany Higgins while accepting a Logie Award on June 19, 2022, eight days before the Lehrmann criminal trial was due to start. The speech led the trial to be delayed.

“As you stood there on the stage flanked by your colleagues with your peers in the audience, was there any part of you that thought, This is not an especially brilliant idea?” Matthew Richardson asked.

“I want to suggest to you that you put your pride and your ego ahead of my client’s right to a fair trial when you gave that speech.”

Wilkinson, composed, said: “I completely disagree.”

The speech, Richardson said, contained the “irresistible” conclusion that she believed Brittany Higgins. Wilkinson denied this, saying only that she intended to convey that she thought Higgins had courage.

In that speech, Wilkinson said Higgins’s alleged assault had been treated as a political problem. This was always a key Higgins complaint.

At the end of the secretly recorded conversation with Michaelia Cash and Daniel Try – an at times fervent attempt to keep Higgins in her job – Cash relents and accepts Higgins has made the decision to quit.

“Now go give that puddy cat some love,” Cash says.

These were the last words in the last real conversation Brittany Higgins heard before she quit politics. Less than a fortnight later, her allegations sent a shockwave through Parliament House.

In court this week, Justice Lee asked Lisa Wilkinson point blank if it was her opinion senior political figures from the Prime Minister’s Office down were “knowing participants in a systemic cover-up”.

“I think it follows that they were,” she said.

That, Justice Lee said, would be “wicked conduct”.

Wilkinson agreed.

Richardson described Higgins’s story, with all of these incendiary elements, as one with “riveting commercial appeal” that “thrilled” Wilkinson.

The presenter was terse in response: “Please don’t make me sound like a cheap tabloid journalist, Mr Richardson.”

The trial continues.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on December 16, 2023 as "‘Please don’t make me sound like a cheap tabloid journalist’".

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