It has been reported that television broadcaster Channel 10 has hired leading Sydney defamation barrister Dr Matthew Collins AM QC to go on the offensive against those who may defame presenter Lisa Wilkinson over comments she made during her Silver Logie acceptance speech on 19 June 2022.
The story so far…
In case you’ve been away from all forms of media, you’re likely to be aware that Ms Wilkinson made comments supportive of complainant Brittany Higgins during her speech while accepting the award for her reporting of Higgins’ claim of having been sexually assaulted by Liberal Party staff member Bruce Lehrmann at Parliament House, Canberra on 22/23 March 2019.
The comments were problematic for the following reasons:
- The trial in respect of the sexual assault allegations against Mr Lehrmann was scheduled to commence in the Supreme Court of the ACT just days after Ms Wilkinson made her comments,
- The Supreme Court is reported to have warned Ms Wilkinson during a pre-trial conference just days before she made her speech, on 15 June 2022, not to make such public comments, and
- The comments, having been made before an audience of around 1 million people, have the potential to unfairly prejudice the defendant and thereby jeopardise his right to a fair and impartial trial.
The upshot of the situation was that the Supreme Court refused a defence application made on 21 June 2022 for permanent stay of proceedings (in other words, a permanent cancellation of the case) on grounds that Mr Lerhmann could never received a fair trial, but, instead, decided to vacate (cancel) the trial date and set a new date of 4 October 2022; hoping there will be no similar occurrence in the lead-up to that day.
During her judgment on the application to vacate the trial, ACT Chief Justice Lucy McCallum remarked:
“Ms Wilkinson… openly referred to and praised the complainant in the present trial”.
“Ms Wilkinson’s status as a respected journalist is such as to lend credence to the representation of the complainant as a woman of courage whose story must be believed”.
“The distinction between an untested allegation and the fact of guilt has been lost”.
Her Honour vacated the trial “regrettably and with gritted teeth”.
There has been heated debate since Ms Wilkinson’s speech regarding whether she will face contempt of court charges.
‘Keep your friends close, and your enemies closer’
In fact, Dr Collins told Channel 7’s Sunrise morning show the day after the Logies that there was a ‘serious possibility’ Ms Wilkinson would be charged with contempt of court.
Channel 10 is reported to have formally engaged the barrister just hours thereafter – potentially transforming him from a critic and adversary to an important asset.
The Queen’s Counsel is perhaps best known for representing Rebel Wilson in her defamation case against Bauer Media in 2017, where she was awarded $4.5 million in damages over eight articles published in 2015.
‘Attack is the best form of defence’
The broadcaster has been extremely supportive of Ms Wilkinson since her speech.
But more than this, Channel 10 has – in the eyes of many – been using its power as a major mainstream media broadcaster used to ‘getting its way’ to go on the offensive, stating:
‘This reporting is now causing significant harm and we ask these organisations to cease this harassment to allow Lisa the best opportunity to give her evidence in court and to enable the trial to go ahead in a fair and timely manner.’
‘We are closely monitoring all coverage of this issue and Lisa and Network 10 reserve their rights in respect of any future defamation claims.’
Mainstream media hypocrisy at its best
This request to ‘cease harassment’ and ‘allow Lisa the best opportunity to give her evidence in court’ comes from a broadcaster that has been getting away for years with its employees physically pursuing people, including camping outside courthouses and even going to their workplaces and homes, and routinely publishing reports that blatantly misrepresent and sensationalise allegations – whether tested or not – and result in the destruction of the careers and reputations of many with impunity.
It is one of the organisations at the forefront of calls to weaken defamation laws and thereby expand press freedoms, so that media organisations may be less concerned about the truthfulness and credibility of their stories.
But it seems that when it comes to ‘coverage’ of its own employee, the Channel is suddenly concerned about the impact of reporting and goes so far as to issue a thinly veiled threat to commence defamation proceedings against those who dare speak their views about the presenter’s conduct– conduct that its own recently-engaged barrister publicly said gives rise to a ‘serious possibility’ of contempt of court charges being brought.
The broadcaster’s position smacks of not only hypocrisy, but as an attempt to use bullying tactics through its high-priced lawyer and public threats in order to silence adverse commentary.