Journalist Lisa Wilkinson thought a senator was “lying through her teeth” responding to a report about a staffer allegedly being raped in her office, hours before Network Ten aired a program about it.
Wilkinson messaged a colleague as Senator Linda Reynolds was asked in Senate question time about meeting with the staffer in the same office where they were allegedly raped.
“I was not aware of the details or the circumstances of the alleged incident in my office. Had I known, I would have conducted the meeting elsewhere,” Senator Reynolds told parliament on February 15, 2021.
Ten aired an interview on The Project that night with Brittany Higgins, which did not name Bruce Lehrmann as the former colleague she alleged sexually assaulted her in Parliament House.
Ms Higgins alleged Lehrmann pinned her down and raped her on Senator Reynolds’ office couch in March 2019.
He has always denied the allegation, saying no sexual contact occurred, and is suing Ten and Wilkinson for defamation.
The accuracy and truth of The Project’s report came under further attack as Wilkinson returned to the Federal Court witness box on Friday.
While grilling Ten producer Angus Llewellyn and Wilkinson this week, Lehrmann’s lawyers suggested the report was poorly researched and Ms Higgins’ claims were believed without proper scrutiny.
Matthew Richardson SC asked Wilkinson on Friday why she messaged Mr Llewellyn that Senator Reynolds was “lying through her teeth” as she addressed the Senate.
Ms Higgins had always insisted the senator knew there was a “sexual element” to the assault that allegedly occurred in her office before they met to discuss it, Wilkinson said.
“I believe Senator Reynolds misled parliament,” she told the court.
Senator Reynolds has vigorously denied covering up the rape allegations, and said she had been the target of unwarranted criticism and abuse since the scandal became public.
The theme of the program and most of its time was devoted to exposing alleged inadequacies in how Ms Higgins’ allegations were managed, Ten’s barrister Matthew Collins earlier told the trial.
Mr Richardson said on Friday the opening of the program describing a woman who was forced to choose between her career and justice was “completely inconsistent” with a statement provided by the government.
That response said Ms Higgins was told there would be no impact on her career as a result of pursuing the allegation.
Wilkinson said the statement “read like a very official response to a very difficult political situation” and she believed Ms Higgins’ career would be impacted by a police investigation.
“She would be seen as a liability,” Wilkinson told the court.
She added Ms Higgins had also placed pressure on herself “as a result of the workplace culture” at Parliament House and Ten had not aired claims “we felt were possibly coloured by her trauma”.
But Wilkinson told the court she did not write the introduction to the program Mr Richardson asked about.
The journalist said she was drafting questions on the afternoon of broadcast in the hope Lehrmann would agree to a last-minute interview.
Attempts had been made to contact him on the previous Friday afternoon with a deadline of 10am Monday.
“I believed 80 hours before broadcast to be a very fair and reasonable time for Mr Lehrmann to respond to us,” Wilkinson said.
Mr Richardson suggested The Project made no genuine effort to get a response from Lehrmann.
“You were going through the motions … just to cover yourself off for defamation,” he said.
She was excused from the witness box on Friday afternoon before the court turned its attention to raw footage of Ms Higgins’ interview with Ten.
Lehrmann was charged in August 2021 with raping Ms Higgins, but his trial in the ACT Supreme Court was derailed by juror misconduct.
Prosecutors did not seek a second trial, citing concerns for Ms Higgins’ mental health.
Lehrmann remains before Queensland courts accused of twice raping another woman in October 2021.
He has not entered a plea, but his lawyers have indicated he denies the charges.
The defamation trial continues on Monday with evidence expected from Queensland LNP MP Sam O’Connor and executive producers from Ten as well as a toxicologist.
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National Sexual Abuse and Redress Support Service 1800 211 028