Ten slammed as 'grossly improper' despite Lehrmann win

Network Ten has been slammed over its failure to probe deficiencies in Brittany Higgins' claims of a federal government rape cover-up, despite winning a defamation dispute with Bruce Lehrmann.

On Monday, Federal Court Justice Michael Lee found Lehrmann was recklessly indifferent as he raped Ms Higgins on a couch in the office of their then boss Senator Linda Reynolds in March 2019.

The judge found a February 2021 report on The Project contained a true statement regarding the sexual assault.

Angus Llewellyn (file image)
Angus Llewellyn (pictured) did not carefully examine David Sharaz's motives, the judge said.

But he criticised Ten for its failure to properly look into other claims by Ms Higgins, including that she was pressured into remaining silent about what happened.

Journalist Lisa Wilkinson and producer Angus Llewellyn took Ms Higgins' allegations regarding the cover-up "as a given" without proper scrutiny, Justice Lee wrote.

The pair also failed to carefully look into the political motives of Ms Higgins' partner David Sharaz when he approached them in 2021 to pitch the story.

"Any journalist who did not think Mr Sharaz had a motivation to inflict immediate political damage would have to be wilfully blind," the judge wrote.

No effort was made to examine the authenticity of a photo of a bruise claimed to have been caused in the sexual assault or to investigate why so many messages from around the time of the incident were missing from Ms Higgins' phone.

Ten also failed to make any reasonable attempt to contact Lehrmann for comment prior to The Project segment airing, Justice Lee found.

Wilkinson and Ten were also criticised over an acceptance speech at the Logies for The Project report days before a criminal trial against Lehrmann was due to begin.

The speech derailed the trial postponing it for months.

Justice Lee said Ten's conduct was "grossly improper" in encouraging Wilkinson to give the speech.

"(Wilkinson) only came to give the speech as a result of being badly let down by those to whom she turned for advice and counsel," he wrote.

Tasha Smithies (file image)
Tasha Smithies should have been aware of potential issues when giving advice, the judge said

Ten's senior litigation counsel Tasha Smithies should have been aware of potential issues when giving advice regarding the speech, the judge said.

"I regret to say that the continuing lack of insight by Ms Smithies as to the inappropriateness of her conduct related to the speech reflects, in my view, a lack of proper appreciation of her professional obligations as a solicitor."

However, the judge also said Wilkinson, as an experienced journalist, should have known that the speech was "fraught with danger".

She gave the speech, not because of pressure from Ten, but because she had become "inextricably intertwined with Ms Higgins," he said.

In a statement, Ten's solicitor Justin Quill defended the network's actions.

“The way in which judges and barristers pick apart and dissect what journalists did or didn't do in applying a legal threshold or legal test of reasonableness is quite often divorced from reality," he said.

Justice Lee also gave brief findings on what he called the "Spotlight detour" in which the defamation case was sensationally reopened a few days before judgment was due to be delivered.

The judge found Seven offered "unorthodox and undocumented" benefits to Lehrmann before his interview on Spotlight.

These allegedly included Thai massages, sex workers and illicit drugs, the court heard previously.

Lehrmann wrongly provided Seven with evidence he had obtained during the criminal trial against him and made false denials to the court that he had done so, Justice Lee said.

In a statement saying he quit the network last week, former Spotlight executive producer Mark Llewellyn defended the program and denied being aware of illegal or unsavoury activities.

1800 RESPECT (1800 737 732)

National Sexual Abuse and Redress Support Service 1800 211 028

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