‘Shocked, embarrassed’: How former star Lisa Wilkinson said she was ‘trashed’ by bosses at Ten

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Sarah Blake
The Nightly
Lisa Wilkinson arrives at the Federal Court of Australia in Sydney, Tuesday, February 13, 2024.
Lisa Wilkinson arrives at the Federal Court of Australia in Sydney, Tuesday, February 13, 2024. Credit: BIANCA DE MARCHI/AAPIMAGE

The full extent of the professional fracture between celebrity journalist Lisa Wilkinson and Network Ten has been laid bare in the Federal Court, where she described being “trashed” by her employer despite “begging” for their support — and revealed for the first time how she came to leave her prominent role as co-host of The Project.

On a dramatic day of legal action amid the ongoing fallout from the 2019 alleged rape of political staffer Brittany Higgins, Wilkinson was one of two protagonists to appear in two courts over separate matters involving the prosecution of Ms Higgins’ alleged attacker, Bruce Lehrmann.

Described as D-Day by legal watchers, the former marquee Ten talent took the stand in livestreamed proceedings in the Federal Court around the same time former ACT director of public prosecutions Shane Drumgold appeared in the ACT Supreme Court to request a damning review into his handling of the case be struck out.

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Once seen nightly on TV screens across Australia, Wilkinson’s public appearances have diminished dramatically since June 2022, when she gave a contentious speech on accepting a Walkley Award for her work reporting on the alleged rape of Ms Higgins.

Wilkinson’s acceptance speech – which she told the court was cleared by Ten’s lawyers and “the highest levels at the network” - sparked fury from ACT Chief Justice Lucy McCallum, who in 2022 postponed Lehrmann’s rape trial through “through gritted teeth”, out of concerns a fair jury trial would not be possible.

Ms Higgins, a former Coalition ministerial staffer, said she was raped by her colleague Lehrmann in the Parliament House office of then-Defence Minister Linda Reynolds after a night out of heavy drinking in Canberra in the early hours of March 23, 2019.

Lehrmann has consistently denied any sexual contact took place and is currently suing Wilkinson and Ten for defamation after having settled legal claims with other media outlets.

The February 13 legal action in the Federal Court centred on who will pay Wilkinson’s legal costs, led by high profile SC Sue Chrysanthou and estimated to already be more than $750,000.

Lisa Wilkinson (centre) arrives at the Federal Court of Australia
Lisa Wilkinson (middle) arrives at court. Credit: AAP

Although media companies and journalists often share legal counsel to fight defamation actions, Wilkinson in court said she engaged her own legal representation when it became clear to her that her “legal interests.. were different to Network Ten’s”.

A sombre Wilkinson was asked in the stand by Ten counsel, Robert Dick SC, if she had only contracted the separate legal team to “advance or protect” her reputation, which had been “trashed in the media” following the controversial speech.

“No,” she said. “My primary concern at all times was that my legal interests were at the forefront.”

In an affidavit tendered to the court, Wilkinson also revealed how she was removed from The Project by Ten CEO Beverley McGarvey due to the “brand damage” caused by her acceptance speech.

She said this was despite McGarvey having texted her “thank you” in the hours after she accepted the award.

“Perfect delivery, you spoke from the heart,” the text from McGarvey said.

“It was a beautiful sentiment and you are so generous to your colleagues. Thank you. The media should all be kind, you deserve it.”

It signified to me that Ten had no real interest in publicly correcting any of the damage done to me and my reputation, and were now only making it worse.

Despite this early support, Wilkinson’s agent Nick Fordham five months later told her that McGarvey was removing her from the panel talk show, leaving her “shocked, embarrassed and deeply disappointed”.

“He told me that Ms McGarvey had informed him that Ten was doing a ‘rebrand’ of The Project with a number of hosting changes. He told me that she had said that those hosting changes included me,” Wilkinson’s affidavit, given in January 2024, said.

“He also told me that she had said that, because there had been too much heat on me in the months since the Logies speech and, as a result, too much ‘brand damage’ – it was best that I be removed from my hosting role on The Project.

“It signified to me that Ten had no real interest in publicly correcting any of the damage done to me and my reputation, and were now only making it worse.

“I felt the decision would indicate to the public that I had in fact done something wrong. I knew that the story of me leaving The Project would result in a continuation of significant and humiliating headlines.”

The defamation case is just one of a string of legal proceedings stemming from the Higgins accusations.

Lehrmann’s rape trial was abandoned in December 2022, due to jury misconduct and a retrial not pursued out of concerns for Ms Higgins’ mental health.

She has since moved with her partner, David Sharaz, to a small village in the south of France, after having received a $2.4m settlement from the Commonwealth.

Mr Drumgold, who led the Lehrmann prosecution, is seeking a judicial review after a scathing review into his conduct by former Queensland judge Walter Sofronoff was leaked to media before being publicly released.

Mr Sofronoff found that while the decision to prosecute Lehrmann was sound, Mr Drumgold lost objectivity, “knowingly lied to the court’s chief justice” and wrongly tried to keep material from the defence.

Mr Drumgold, who himself requested the Sofronoff inquiry but stepped down shortly after it was handed down, has described some of the findings against him as unreasonable and said he was denied a fair hearing.

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