ABC accused of prejudicing Lehrmann trial by airing Brittany Higgins’ NPC speech

Former political staffer Bruce Lehrmann has accused the ABC of prejudicing the trial against him by broadcasting Brittany Higgins’ National Press Club address.

In documents filed with the Federal Court on Monday, Mr Lehrmann said the ABC’s actions were so reckless it “amounted to wilful blindness and constituted malice”.

Mr Lehrmann is suing the ABC over the joint address by Ms Higgins and campaigner Grace Tame in February 2022 that was broadcast live and later uploaded in full to the ABC’s YouTube Channel.

He claims the broadcast defamed him by implying he raped Ms Higgins on a couch in a ministerial office at Parliament House in 2019.

Mr Lehrmann pleaded not guilty to one charge of sexual assault before the trial was aborted due to jury misconduct. The DPP dropped the charge last December, citing concerns about Ms Higgins’ mental health.

He has continually denied the allegation and there have been no findings made against him.

According to the court documents, Ms Higgins opened her address by repeating her allegation that she was “raped on a couch” in what she thought was the “safest and most secure building in Australia”.

Mr Lehrmann’s lawyers said the broadcast was “recklessly indifferent, negligent and wilfully blind” to the likelihood Ms Higgins would repeat the allegation.

His lawyers argued the ABC had “improper motive” to prejudice the criminal proceedings brought against Mr Lehrmann.

“It was not only reasonably foreseeable, and high risk, but quite inevitable that Ms Higgins would, during the NPC address, repeat her allegation that she was sexually assaulted by an unnamed work colleague in Parliament House,” the court documents state.

“(ABC host and NPC moderator) Laura Tingle certainly expected this would occur, as would have any rational observer.”

The documents said the broadcast of Ms Higgins’ comments alongside Ms Tame gave gravitas to her claims.

“Even if a potential juror already had some awareness of the allegations made by Ms Higgins, their repetition in such a national forum, juxtaposed with the words of Ms Tame during the NPC address (whose assailant had actually been convicted in a court), could only amount to an overwhelming message that Ms Higgins’ allegations were true and that she had been assaulted,” Mr Lehrmann’s lawyers said.

“Indeed the whole point of the NPC address was that Ms Higgins was telling the truth and that cultural and other change ought to follow.”

Mr Lehrmann also claims in the court documents the ABC made no attempt to “check the truth of the allegation” or contact him for a response.

The speech did not name the former political staffer, but his lawyers say he was identifiable given Mr Lehrmann was publicly named after being charged in August 2021.

The ABC is relying in part on a public interest defence in the proceedings. It denies Mr Lehrmann was defamed by the live broadcast.

“If as asserted in (the statement of claim), it was notorious throughout Australia that Lehrmann was the person accused of, and charged with, the sexual assault of Ms Higgins, then … the matters complained of would not have caused, and were not likely to cause, serious harm to Lehrmann’s reputation,” the ABC said.

Last month, Mr Lehrmann discontinued legal action against News Corp’s News Life Media and Samantha Maiden over articles published based on interviews with Ms Higgins.

He is separately suing Network 10 and journalist Lisa Wilkinson.

Mr Lehrmann was not named in the reports but claims he was nevertheless identified by the media companies.

Justice Michael Lee on April 28 ruled that Mr Lehrmann would be allowed to file the lawsuit outside of the one-year deadline.

On Sunday evening, the former Liberal staffer told Seven News Spotlight he had not ruled out suing Ms Higgins personally for defamation.

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