In May this year, Justice Wigney of the Federal Court awarded actor Geoffrey Rush a monumental $2.87 million payout after he won a case against the Daily Telegraph’s publisher Nationwide News. Rush will receive the highest defamation payout to a single individual in Australia’s history, following the rescindment on appeal of Rebel Wilson’s record-breaking payout of $3.9 million from Bauer Media. Rush’s payout includes over $1 million for past economic loss, $919,678 in future economic loss and $42,000 in interest.
The case arose out of stories alleging that the Oscar-winning actor behaved inappropriately towards colleague Eryn Jean Norvill. Specifically, the case related to two articles published by The Daily Telegraph in November and December 2017. The first of these articles was found by Justice Wigney to be particularly damaging to Rush’s reputation. The front-page article, published on November 30, contained an image of Rush in his role as King Lear during the Sydney Theatre Company production four years ago. The judge found that the image of Rush in the character of King Lear, with the headline “KING LEER”, was particularly damaging and unable to be justified by Nationwide News’ ‘truth’ defence.
In Victoria, the ‘truth’ defence is a complete defence to a defamation action. For this defence to succeed, the defendant must prove that the defamatory accusations made are true. Conversely, the plaintiff must demonstrate that the allegations are false.
In making a finding for Rush, Justice Wigney reached the conclusion that the articles published in the Daily Telegraph were “recklessly irresponsible pieces of sensationalist journalism of the very worst kind”.
Ultimately, Justice Wigney was not convinced by the testimony of the individual at the centre of the scandal, Eryn Jean Norvill. The judge found that she was an unreliable witness, prone to “exaggeration and embellishment” and that her testimony “was not only uncorroborated but contradicted” by the director of the production, Niel Armfield, and other cast members.
This case raises interesting questions in the era of the #MeToo movement. Justice Wigney’s judgement was immediately condemned by supporters of the movement who felt that it would have a negative effect on women who had been sexually harassed, discouraging victims from coming forward with a claim. However, the judge made it clear that the #MeToo movement cannot be a reason to incorrectly undermine the operation of justice in a court of law.
Regardless of public backlash, the case has set new precedent for defamation in cases going forward.
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Thank you to our intern Paris for this article.