By now, most of the nation knows the story: Channel 10 presenter Lisa Wilkinson spoke glowingly of Parliament House sexual assault complainant Brittany Higgins during her Logies acceptance speech on 19 June 2022, causing the trial of defendant Bruce Lehrmann which was scheduled to commence just days later to be vacated (cancelled) and relisted on 4 October 2022.
In the words of ACT Supreme Court Chief Justice Lucy McCallum: “Ms Wilkinson… openly referred to and praised the complainant in the present trial” and thereby gave “credence to the representation of the complainant as a woman of courage whose story must be believed”.
The presenter’s conduct was found to have caused “The distinction between an untested allegation and the fact of guilt… [to be] lost”.
It is a shame that writers and presenters in the mainstream media feel that, with the enormous power of their companies behind them, they can say and do whatever they please – regardless of the consequences on others.
In Ms Wilkinson’s case, she was specifically told during a pre-trial conference on 15 June 2022, just four days beforehand, not to make public statements about the case.
During that conference, the court issued a general warning that speaking public about the trial at that stage of the proceedings could undermine the presumption of innocence and jeopardise the defendant’s right to a fair and impartial trial
Things need to change with the mainstream media
But hey, this is the mainstream media – the people who are used to wielding enormous power with impunity. People who feel they have the right to say whatever they want, whenever they want, an any situation they want including when a person who is meant to be presumed innocent is facing a serious criminal trial – a potentially life altering situation.
Many of these presenters and writers make public statements and publish reports about others based on hand-picked, twisted and sensationalised facts, in a calculated attempt to destroy their targets. They feel they are above the law, a protected species, regularly devastating lives with impunity.
These people who claim to be journalists then complain about being sued for defamation – after going out of their narcissistic ways to harm with their sensationalised, blatantly misleading and often nearly entirely false reports.
Things need to change.
Trial ‘regrettably’ vacated
In any event, despite the warning, WSFM radio presenters Brendan Jones and Amanda Keller heaped praise on Ms Wilkinson for her speech during their popular radio show the very next morning.
Justice McCallum expressed disappointment with all three presenters during her decision to vacate the trial; a decision she made “regrettably and with gritted teeth”.
And despite her Honour refusing a defence application for a permanent stay of proceedings (which is a permanent cancellation of the case) it’s pretty clear there’s absolutely no way in the world Bruce Lehrmann is going to receive a fair trial with people like Lisa Wilkinson, Brendan Jones and Amanda Keller around.
Contempt of court
Also on the morning after Ms Wilkinson’s speech, leading Sydney defamation barrister Dr Matthew Collins AM QC told Channel 7’s Sunrise morning show there was a ‘serious possibility’ Ms Wilkinson would be charged with contempt of court.
A contempt of court is an act that has the tendency to interfere with or undermine the authority, performance, or dignity of the court or those who participate in court proceedings.
Attack is the best defence
Just hours after he appeared on the show, Channel 10 formally engaged Dr Collins to represent both Ms Wilkinson and the station in any proceedings they might choose to take against anyone they believed defamed them.
The Channel, that has long campaigned for the dilution of defamation laws with a view to expanding press freedoms, and which is well-known for its sensationalisation and misreporting of ‘untested’ allegations, brazenly issued the following public statement:
‘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.’
The statement has justifiably been characterised as both hypocritical considering its reporting of matters that are yet to be tested in court, and a form of bullying designed to suppress criticism.
No contempt charges
Despite a public backlash against both Ms Wilkinson and Channel 10 over the next week and a half, with thousands calling for the journalist to be charged with contempt, it has been reported that no such charges will be brought against her, Jones or Keller.
Rather, the ACT Supreme Court has indicated it will seek formal ‘undertakings’ from the trio essentially not to do it again.
A breach of those undertakings would, many would hope, lead to contempt charges being brought – but the whole saga has many questioning whether there may be one rule for the rich and famous, who are backed by high-priced lawyers, and another rule for the rest of the community; a sentiment which has the potential to undermine public confidence in the rule of law.