Network 10 is seeking to call a lip-reading expert to analyse CCTV vision of Bruce Lehrmann and Brittany Higgins on the night that she alleges she was raped by her former colleague, a court has heard.
Mr Lehrmann is suing Network 10 and Lisa Wilkinson for defamation over their reporting of sexual assault allegations made by Ms Higgins in a The Project interview, which his lawyer claims “utterly destroyed him” and painted him as a “revolting predator”.
On the opening day of the blockbuster Federal Court trial, Mr Lehrmann took the stand, detailing how he says he was ostracised and abandoned by friends in the wake of the February 2021 interview.
During his hour on the witness stand on Wednedasy, he told Justice Michael Lee how he left Parliament House on the evening of March 22, 2019 for dinner and a few drinks with a friend and colleague before they were invited to meet up with Ms Higgins and another group.
He told the court that he was invited to The Dock by Ms Higgins, where he sat at another table with his friend.
First interactions with Ms Higgins
He said he had “cordial” interactions with Ms Higgins and her group before they moved on together to the 88MPH bar to “kick on”.
Dr Matt Collins KC, the barrister representing Network 10, on Wednesday afternoon told the court that the broadcaster had hired an expert lip-reader to give evidence.
“What it does is provide a transcript of the lip reader’s opinion as to words spoken by Mr Lehrmann and Ms Higgins at various points in the CCTV footage from the Dock,” Dr Collins said.
He said he planned to cross examine Ms Higgins and Mr Lehrmann about the contents of the transcript.
“It does provide is some material, which is of some significant probative weight,” Dr Collins said.
He said he had “deliberately” chosen an expert from the UK, who had no knowledge of the case.
However Mr Lehrmann’s solicitor, Steve Whybrow questioned the admissibility of the evidence.
“I do have some concerns about what would appear to be quite leading materials put to Ms Higgins of conversations she’s had apparently, or a version of conversations she’s had four years ago,“ he said.
“EJECT”: Lehrmann chats revealed after Project
Under questioning from his Mr Whybrow, Mr Lehrmann told the court that he was booted out of a chat group with two other friends, which was called “the triumvirate” after the airing of The Project episode.
“I was booted out of that group chat in the week after The Project airing,” Mr Lehrmann told the court, adding that the two friends also deleted him as a friend.
He said after the allegations were made public he was removed from group chats, blocked and unfriended.
Mr Lehrmann told the court that he was also involved in another Facebook chat with fellow Nationals state and federal staffers.
He said that after The Project interview aired, someone posted a picture saying “eject” before every other member of the group left, leaving him as the only remaining member.
“I recall logging back into my social media accounts to shut them down because of the media furore that was erupting,” Mr Lehrmann told the court on Wednesday afternoon.
“And I observed not only being removed from group chats, but people either blocking me … my total number of friends on Facebook had reduced, meaning people unfriended me.”
He said: “I became severely isolated” and it sent him into a “deep spiral”.
He told the court that he deleted his social media accounts after he was admitted to a mental health facility, the Ramsay Clinic Northside.
The trial kicked off on Wednesday with an opening addresses by Mr Lehrmann’s counsel, Matthew Richardson SC.
Mr Lehrmann also launched defamation proceedings against the ABC over the live broadcast of a National Press Club address by Ms Higgins.
However, the court heard the national broadcaster had settled the suit. The terms of the settlement were not disclosed.
Mr Lehrmann has alleged that Ms Wilkinson’s Project interview with Ms Higgins, conveyed a series of false, defamatory meanings, including that he raped Ms Higgins in Parliament House.
While Mr Lehrmann was not named during the interview, he argues was identified by it.
The trial, to be heard by Justice Michael Lee, is slated to run for three-and-a-half weeks.
In his opening address to Justice Lee, Mr Richardson said that Mr Lehrmann had come to court to seek “vindication” and that the allegations had “utterly destroyed” him.
“He has come here for justice,” Mr Richardson said.
While Mr Lehrmann was not named during the broadcast, he has argued that he was still identified.
Mr Richardson argued that Mr Lehrmann was identifiable by anyone who had “regular dealings” with him.
“Within a couple of days, various websites were actually naming him and he was named on Twitter,” Mr Richardson said.
Mr Richardson said that Ms Higgins was “canonised” by the Project broadcast and that “not a scintilla of doubt if applied to the allegation”
“The message is plain - what she says has happened,” he said.
“THE MOST ODIOUS OF PREDATORS”
Mr Richardson said he expected both Mr Lehrmann and Ms Higgin’s version of events to come under “strong attack” when they take the stand.
“Our position is that inconsistencies and improbabilities have accumulated over (Ms Higgins’) various successive accounts,” Mr Richardson said.
He further described her as an “unreliable witness”.
Mr Richardson said he would seek to raise questions about the timing of Ms Higgins first raising the allegation.
He said she did not raise a complaint on the weekend or on the Monday following, when she exchanged work emails with Mr Lehrmann.
“It was only later on the Tuesday after Ms Higgins had seen Mr Lehrmann pack up and leave the office, after he met with (Ms Reynolds’ then chief of staff Fiona) Brown,” Mr Richardson said.
“After she had attended the meeting with Ms Brown where the security implications of the after-hours entry into Parliament House had been raised and when she had been asked to re-sign a code of conduct.”
He said while the story was broken by journalist Sam Maiden on News.com.au, The Project interview “seared this allegation into the national consciousness”.
Further the broadcast had caused him to be “publicly maligned” and portrayed as a “prominent rapist” and “revolting predator”.
On Wednesday, Ms Wilkinson’s interview with Ms Higgins was played to the court.
Mr Richardson described the segment as being: “Carefully edited to emphasise the emotion of the complaint, the ostentatious outrage of Ms Wilkinson, the visceral denunciation of my client as the most odious of predators. Accompanied, as your honour will have heard, by sinister sound effects as in a horror movie interluded with melancholy piano.
He added that Mr Lehrmann had “lost everything” and that the dropping of criminal charges “has not stopped the haemorrhaging”.
“Substantial award of damages would be called for,” Mr Richardson said.
He told the Federal Court: “I’ll remind the court of the viewership of 725,000 views on the night, about 200,000 more views or more than slightly more than that on the internet up until 30 June 2021.
“Obviously, many persons who viewed it initially would not have identified my client, but the poison would have spread.”
In his statement of claim filed with the court, Mr Lehrmann claims that Ten was “recklessly indifferent to the truth or falsity” of the imputations of the claim without giving him an opportunity to respond.
In its defence filed with the Federal Court, Ten has indicated it would rely on a defence of truth and qualified privilege.
It says that it attempted to contact Mr Lehrmann via email and phone however he did not respond.
Mr Richardson told the court that his client was not approached for comment until the Friday before the program went to air on the following Monday.
He said that producer Angus Llewellyn first used a mobile number - which Ms Higgins’ partner David Sharaz had obtained from an old media release.
The court heard Mr Llewellyn had attempted to contact Mr Lehrmann using two email addresses - a hotmail address and a work address for a job which Mr Lehrmann left six months prior.
The first witness in the trial, former political advisor Karly Abbott told the court that following the broadcast of the Ms Higgins’ The Project interview, she had “numerous conversations” with colleagues about the identity of the man involved in the story.
“Do you remember sorts of things they were saying?” Mr Richardson asked.
“Just did you see The Project? Did you know that was Bruce? Can you believe that happened? Those sorts of things,” Ms Abbott told the court.
Mr Lehrmann stood trial in the ACT Supreme Court last year after pleading not guilty to sexually assaulting Ms Higgins, but the trial was aborted due to juror misconduct.
The charges were subsequently dropped by the Director of Public Prosecutions due to concerns about Ms Higgins’ mental health.
Mr Lehrmann has continued to deny the allegations and no adverse findings have been made against him.
The trial continues on Thursday.