By Duncan Murray in Sydney
Lisa Wilkinson has accused Network Ten of failing to publicly clarify that her controversial Logies speech on Brittany Higgins’ alleged rape had been cleared by top executives and legal counsel.
The 2022 speech led to Wilkinson being widely condemned in the media after the rape trial of ex-Liberal staffer Bruce Lehrmann’s was delayed as a result.
Wilkinson told a Federal Court defamation trial on Tuesday the speech had been pre-approved by Ten’s senior legal counsel, Tasha Smithies.
The veteran journalist and presenter said her speech was also viewed by the broadcaster’s boss, Beverley McGarvey, and head of communications, Catherine Donovan.
The court also heard former ACT director of public prosecutions Shane Drumgold did not warn Wilkinson or Ten lawyers of risks involved with the speech before its delivery, as he later claimed.
Mr Drumgold in May told an inquiry he warned Wilkinson the speech carried risks of delaying Lehrmann’s impending trial, but he conceded he could have done so more directly.
Wilkinson and Smithies both said on Tuesday that Mr Drumgold gave no such warning.
During the bitter media fallout that followed her speech, Wilkinson said Ten “refused” to make public that it had approved the speech, despite her “begging them” to do so.
The journalist said she was “trashed” and accused of recklessly derailing the trial.
“The media believed that I had gotten up on that stage and given a speech pretty much off the top of my head,” she said.
“That was completely incorrect.
“(Ten) had asked me to make that speech, they had been involved in legalling that speech right up until 4.37 on the afternoon of the Logies.”
Ten put out a public statement at the time describing reporting on Wilkinson as “inaccurate and unfair”, adding that it continued to fully support her.
Wilkinson said she understood her employer’s statement to have been “very legally considered”.
Ms Smithies, who is the most senior litigation counsel at Ten, confirmed during Tuesday’s hearing that she viewed the Logies speech and advised Wilkinson it was appropriate.
Wilkinson’s barrister Michael Elliott SC grilled the Ten lawyer on her role in approving the speech, accusing her of “playing with words” and trying to protect herself from embarrassment.
Ms Smithies said she did not believe the advice she gave Wilkinson exposed her to public criticism.
“You knew what the press was saying, to the effect that Ms Wilkinson was acting recklessly because she had acted against warnings, was not true?” Mr Elliot asked.
“Yes,” Ms Smithies replied.
The Logies speech resulted in the ACT Supreme Court proceedings being postponed to protect Lehrmann’s right to a fair trial over allegations he raped Ms Higgins in Parliament House in 2019.
Lehrmann is suing Ten and Wilkinson for defamation over a February 2021 report on The Project that aired Ms Higgins’ claims.
Wilkinson has launched a cross-claim against the broadcaster to recoup legal costs after retaining her own legal representation, estimated to be in the hundreds of thousands of dollars.
The journalist was cross-examined by Ten lawyer Robert Dick SC on Tuesday, when he put to her that her motivation for retaining a separate lawyer was to protect or advance her public image.
“It was becoming very apparent to me that Channel 10 … (was) conflicted when it came to representing me in these defamation proceedings,” Wilkinson replied.
She said she was not informed by Ten about the legal action against them and had to find out through the media.
“I found it deeply unsatisfactory,” Wilkinson said.
Lehrmann has always denied any sexual contact occurred with Ms Higgins. His criminal trial was derailed by juror misconduct.
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