Lehrmann sure of ‘millions in defamation’ from reports

Miklos Bolza |

Before being charged with sexual assault, former Liberal staffer Bruce Lehrmann said he could obtain “millions in defamation” over media reports about the alleged rape of Brittany Higgins.

Mr Lehrmann sent WhatsApp messages to his then girlfriend ahead of a segment on Ten Network’s The Project on February 15, 2021, regarding the potential payout after speaking with solicitor Warwick Korn.

“If I’m named tonight then (Mr Korn) says I’m up for millions in defamation,” he wrote.

In the messages, which were read out in the Federal Court on Thursday, he expressed confidence there would be no criminal charges brought against him.

“Criminal is off the cards completely,” he said.

Mr Lehrmann was interviewed by Australian Federal Police on March 4, 2021. AFP officers seized his phone, finding a folder called “Higgins matter” containing photographs of his handwritten notes.

“(Brittany Higgins) initiated drinks and we were equals,” he wrote, referring to the alleged assault.

He also jotted down a list of “friendly” media organisations such as 7News, Sky News and Channel Nine he could use in his “fightback” against the publications, as well as journalists he suspected had defamed him.

Mr Lehrmann was charged with sexual intercourse without consent in August 2021.

Ms Higgins accused him of raping her in the Parliament House office of former minister Linda Reynolds, who they both worked for, in 2019.

Following his trial, the jury was discharged in October last year due to juror misconduct. Prosecutors announced they would no longer pursue the charges in December, citing concerns for Ms Higgins’ mental health.

In February, Mr Lehrmann launched defamation action against Ten and News Corp for their February 2021 coverage of rape allegations.

Former Ten journalist Lisa Wilkinson and News political editor Samantha Maiden are also named in the lawsuits.

The parties were in court on Thursday to hear an extension of time application by Mr Lehrmann over the defamation lawsuits, which typically have to be filed within a year of any publications.

Mr Lehrmann claims he could not start the lawsuits earlier because of the criminal proceeding, legal advice he received from Mr Korn and his own mental health.

Wilkinson’s barrister Sue Chrysanthou SC said there were inconsistencies between the messages sent by Mr Lehrmann about Mr Korn’s advice and what he told his solicitor Paul Svilans, his instructing solicitor in the defamation cases.

Giving evidence, Mr Lehrmann said he had been suspended from his job at British American Tobacco after a News article on the rape allegations and had contacted Mr Korn for advice about any looming criminal matters. 

“Certainly, I was outraged by what I was seeing,” he told Justice Michael Lee.

Despite telling his girlfriend he was up for “millions” and would not face criminal charges, he said he had not received this advice from Mr Korn but was merely trying to calm down his upset partner.

“I was placating (her) because she was distraught,” he said under cross-examination by Ten’s barrister Dr Matthew Collins KC.

“In actual fact, I was in a sense putting on a brave face.”

He claimed other messages saying he had engaged a defamation lawyer in February were fabrications meant to create the impression his house was in order as “Rome was burning”.

Lawyers for Ten and News argue that when Mr Lehrmann spoke to Mr Korn, he believed there would be no charges brought against him, and it was unreasonable for him to have waited so long to bring the defamation lawsuits. 

Mr Lehrmann has denied the rape allegations, telling the court he had to check-in to a mental health facility as a result of the “intense media scrutiny” and then leave his Sydney home, moving in with his mother in Toowoomba.

In their defences, Ten, News and Wilkinson aim to prove the truth of the sexual assault allegations.

The Federal Court hearing will continue on March 23.

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