Bruce Lehrmann defamation trial: Brittany Higgins back in court with TV producer Taylor Auerbach in spotlight

Tim Clarke
The Nightly
5 Min Read
Former Liberal staffer Bruce Lehmann is suing Lisa Wilkinson and Network Ten for defamation.
Former Liberal staffer Bruce Lehmann is suing Lisa Wilkinson and Network Ten for defamation. Credit: MICK TSIKAS/AAPIMAGE

The multimillion-dollar defamation cage match featuring Bruce Lehrmann, Brittany Higgins, The Project and Lisa Wilkinson will see a new antagonist enter the ring on Tuesday — as Network Ten attempts to re-open the case with a sensational 11th-hour affidavit.

Federal Court Justice Michael Lee was due to hand down his judgment on Thursday in Mr Lehrmann’s defamation action against Ten and Ms Wilkinson, stemming from their 2021 interview with Ms Higgins in which she aired allegations of rape in Parliament House.

That ruling had been months in the writing, after a trial that pitted the competing versions of what happened in the office of WA senator Linda Reynolds in March 2019 starkly against each other.

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The judgment is one of the most keenly awaited in recent legal history, with the reputations of Mr Lehrmann, Ms Higgins and Ms Wilkinson all set to be defined by the judge’s words.

But on Easter Sunday, lawyers for Ten raised the prospect of the trial being resurrected — to hear more evidence relating to Mr Lehrmann.

That application is understood to be based on an affidavit sworn by Taylor Auerbach, a journalist who last week departed Sky News — and had previously been a producer on the Seven Network’s Spotlight program.

He was in that position when Spotlight secured the interview with Mr Lehrmann, conducted by Liam Bartlett, which aired last year.

And it was within that production that never seen or heard material relating to the Higgins case was aired.

That included CCTV from inside Parliament House, audio excerpts from a five-hour meeting between Ms Wilkinson and Ms Higgins before their interview was recorded, and thousands of Ms Higgins’ text messages.

Questions were immediately raised by legal teams for Ten and Ms Wilkinson about how that material was sourced — and from whom.

Mr Lehrmann’s lawyers quickly and unequivocally told the Federal Court it had not come from him.

And that he had definitely had not breached his legal “Harman” undertaking that he could not use any other confidential documents disclosed to him for any other reason — such as a media interview.

Lisa Wilkinson claims she did not defame Bruce Lehrmann.
Lisa Wilkinson claims she did not defame Bruce Lehrmann. Credit: BIANCA DE MARCHI/AAPIMAGE

“He absolutely denies that. It is a grave and serious allegation,” his barrister Matthew Collins said.

Ultimately, Justice Lee said at that point he would not allow Mr Lehrmann to be questioned about whether he was the source.

The ACT Police was asked to investigate, but could not find any clear criminal behaviour to suggest a contempt of court.

But today, those questions will be firmly raised again.

And Mr Auerbach, who was involved in securing the interview with Mr Lehrmann, is understood to be the reason they will be raised.

His affidavit as yet remains unsighted, and any claims in it untested.

But, at an emergency interlocutory hearing to be held on Tuesday afternoon, Ten’s lawyers will ask Justice Lee to admit the affidavit — and open up the possibility of more in-court examinations.

If he does, that will inevitably push back his judgment day. But if he finds the new material peripheral, then his scheduled delivery of his reasons will likely go ahead on Thursday.

The minutes to midnight twist is just the latest in a legal saga that has so far spanned the ACT Supreme Court, the Federal Court, the WA Supreme Court and a special board of inquiry.

Taylor Auerbach is the latest player to be drawn into the long-running defamation case.
Taylor Auerbach is the latest player to be drawn into the long-running defamation case. Credit: X/supplied

Following Ms Higgins’ allegations, Mr Lehrmann was eventually tried before a jury for rape. That trial collapsed, amid jury misconduct, and the prosecution then abandoned because of fears for Ms Higgins’ mental health.

Mr Lehrmann then launched his own defamation action, against the ABC, News Corp and Network Ten.

The first two matters were settled.

But the central action against Ten and Ms Wilkinson was fought bitterly, with all the main players giving sensational evidence.

The he said/she said accounts of Mr Lehrmann and Ms Higgins led Justice Lee to make some telling comments about both of them.

“It is clear that there are significant credit issues in relation to the two principal witnesses … certainly Mr Lehrmann and Ms Higgins,” he said at one point.

“Various parts of each witness’s evidence simply can’t be accepted.”

Whether he accepts that Mr Auerbach’s affidavit attestations warrant delaying his judgment will be his central question on Tuesday.

What Justice Lee makes of how that affidavit came to be made will be a fascinating offshoot.

Mr Auerbach’s name emerged last week in the context of another media commotion, involving his former colleague Steve Jackson, NSW Police Commissioner Karen Webb, two Thai masseuses and a company credit card.

Mr Jackson, who produced the Lehrmann Spotlight interview, had been appointed as the new media adviser to Ms Webb after her public blunders under questioning about the alleged murder of two men by serving NSW officer Beau Lamarre-Condon.

That appointment caused ripples, when it was revealed Mr Jackson had counselled Mr Auerbach about his booking of two Thai masseuses on a Seven credit card while wooing Mr Lehrmann to commit to the Spotlight interview.

Mr Lehrmann denied the tale as “an untrue and bizarre story from a disgruntled ex-Network Seven producer”.

Brittany Higgins alleges Mr Lehrmann raped her on a couch in the office of Senator Linda Reynolds.
Brittany Higgins alleges Mr Lehrmann raped her on a couch in the office of Senator Linda Reynolds. Credit: DAN HIMBRECHTS/AAPIMAGE

Mr Auerbach threatened defamation himself, on the basis Mr Lehrmann was calling him a liar.

And Justice Lee will be asked to accept he is now telling the truth about Mr Lehrmann being the Spotlight source.

Amid all that yet another defamation action — that of the outgoing Senator Reynolds and Ms Higgins — is due to return to a Perth court on Wednesday.

After face-to-face mediation between the politician and her former junior media adviser broke down last month, Ms Higgins was admitted to a Perth hospital, and the case paused.

“Legal negotiations are unfortunately sometimes difficult and testing for all participants and yesterday was a tiring and difficult day for all of us,” Senator Reynolds later said.

It will return for a directions hearing before a new judge, where the prospect of more peace talks will likely be canvassed.

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Justice Lee finds Lehrmann ‘hell-bent on having sex’ with Higgins and ‘didn’t care if she knew what was going on’