Geoffrey Rush defamation, engaged in ‘recklessly irresponsible’.
News Corp has been ordered to pay more than $850,000 (£465,000) – with the prospect of millions more – to Geoffrey Rush after a court found Sydney’s Daily Telegraph defamed him by alleging he “engaged in inappropriate behaviour” during a theatre production of King Lear.
The reports were “in all the circumstances, a recklessly irresponsible piece of sensationalist journalism of the worst kind”, judge Michael Wigney told the Sydney court on Thursday, estimating that Rush’s earnings as an actor would suffer for as long as two years following the “vindication of his reputation”.
Speaking outside the court Rush thanked his wife and children “for their support during this harrowing time”.
Wigney ruled News Corp’s Nationwide News, the publisher of the Daily Telegraph, which has no connection to the British paper of the same name, and the journalist Jonathon Moran, “did not make out their truth defence” in fighting the suit.
The evidence was “solidly against” the Rupert Murdoch-owned newspaper and Rush’s King Lear co-star, Eryn Jean Norvill, who was revealed after the November 2017 reports to be the subject of the allegations against Rush.
Wigney said he was “acutely conscious of and had regard to the difficulties and disadvantages that are often encountered by complainants in cases involving allegations of sexual harassment” and that Norvill had “essentially been dragged into the spotlight” by Moran and the Daily Telegraph.
However, he ultimately rejected the evidence of Norvill and fellow actor Mark Leonard Winter, instead accepting that of the high-profile actors and directors who spoke in defence of Rush.
He said Norvill’s evidence was “not only uncorroborated but contradicted by … the evidence of Rush, [director Neil] Armfield, [and cast members Robyn] Nevin and [Helen] Buday.”
Norvill closed her eyes as the judge said she was a witness “prone to exaggeration and embellishment”.
“I was not ultimately persuaded that Ms Norvill was an entirely credible witness”, Wigney said, in comments that were repeated throughout the judgement.
Speaking outside the court, Norvill said she stood by everything she had said at trial, and the case had “caused hurt for everyone”.
Wigney awarded more than $850,000 in compensation for aggravated damages. He reserved an assessment of further compensation for special damages, which he said would be based on expert advice that Rush would likely not receive any “real” offers of work for 12 months after the “vindication of his reputation” and would likely get 50% of his usual rate for the first 12-18 months after that, and then 75% for the 18-24 months.
“The defamatory imputations conveyed by the publications were unquestionably extremely serious”, Wigney said, and could destroy Rush’s reputation.
The Daily Telegraph front page story, published under the headline “King Leer” in November 2017, reported the Sydney Theatre Company had received the anonymous complaint but provided no further details.
Follow-up articles were published the next day, which Wigney said “doubled down” on the story.
“Having apparently received some backlash in relation to the previous day’s publications, they set about ‘bootstrapping’ the story to include some misleading statements of support for the allegations,” he said.
Rush sued the newspaper and Moran, claiming the articles conveyed the imputation that he was a “pervert”, a “sexual predator” and “committed sexual assault”.
The stories were written without the permission or involvement of the alleged victim, later revealed to be Norvill, who played Cordelia in the production.
Wigney found they conveyed four defamatory imputations, and that the follow-up stories conveyed seven through the addition of new information and the portrayal of Rush’s denials as “acts of defiance”, and other elements which linked Rush to the scandals around Harvey Weinstein, Kevin Spacey and the Australian TV personality Don Burke.
“It is not for the court to provide some broader social commentary about sexual harassment in the theatre or entertainment industry in Australia, or the #MeToo movement, or the effect that Australia’s defamation laws may have in relation to that movement,” Wigney said early in his summary.
The #MeToo movement provided “important contextual backdrop” to the case, but no more than that, he said.
The Daily Telegraph argued the defence of truth, and put forward witnesses – including Norvill – who alleged Rush had cupped her breast, put his hand under her shirt, and sent her a text which said he thought of her “more than is socially appropriate”.
However Wigney said context was “everything” and that on balance he did not accept that Rush intended the remark to be demeaning or that it was “scandalously inappropriate”.
Norvill had alleged a daily pattern of sexual harassment during the production’s run.
She described one alleged instance to the court: “He was stroking, gesturing up and down my torso [and] groping above my breasts … and kind of raising his eyebrows, bulging his eyes, smiling, licking his lips.”
Rush denied the allegations.
At the start of the trial in October, Rush said it had been “the worst 11 months of my life”.
“These [articles] are the starting point of that and it only got worse,” he said.
“It kind of concurs with the 47th anniversary of my starting life as a professional actor, and suddenly [it] was dismantling how I felt as a person.”
Rush’s lawyer, Bruce McClintock SC, told the court Rush was seeking aggravated damages and had suffered financial hardship. McClintock said the actor had been earning “many millions of dollars” a year before the article, but had made just $44,000 in the 10 months since.
Nationwide News and Moran had contended that even if Rush was defamed he was not entitled to aggravated damages or damages for economic loss.
High-profile members of the Australian theatre and film industry, including Armfield, defended Rush during the case. Armfield said he had no memory of allegedly telling Rush to be “less creepy” in a scene with Norvill.
The Daily Telegraph attempted to introduce another witness, referred to as “Witness X” to bolster claims against Rush, but the request was denied.
Australia’s defamation laws are notoriously complicated and strict.
Australian law caps defamation pay-outs for non-economic loss at $389,500 but “aggravated damages” have no limit.
In September 2017 the actor Rebel Wilson was awarded a record $4.7m after she sued Bauer Media over a series of articles which made her out to be a liar, but after a successful appeal she was ordered to pay back more than 92%.