4 June 2019
On 24 May 2019, Oscar-winning actor Geoffrey Rush was awarded $2.87 million for his defamation case against the Daily Telegraph. This includes $850 000 in damages, almost $2 million in past and future economic loss, and $42 000 in interest. It is the second highest defamation pay-out ever, and the highest ever awarded to a single individual. This sum does not include costs.
The defamation case concerns allegations of sexual harassment levelled against Rush by the Daily Telegraph. Those allegations were originally published without the cooperation or support of Eryn Jean Norvill, who alleged Rush behaved inappropriately. As the case progressed, Norvill agreed to testify. Some of her allegations were supported by her fellow actor, Mark Leonard Winter. However, Justice Wigney ultimately did not find Winter’s evidence “credible or reliable”. He also found that Norvill was a witness “prone to exaggeration and embellishment”. He was critical of Norvill accusing other cast members of complicity in Rush’s alleged misconduct, finding it “did not reflect well on her credibility and reliability”.
In order to defend their case against Rush, the Daily Telegraph needed to prove the allegations against Rush were substantially true, on the balance of probabilities. The New York Times observed, the case “was a test of whether a celebrity of Mr. Rush’s stature could fend off #MeToo accusations through a defamation claim.” Thus, the judgment was “seen as a blow for the #MeToo movement in Australia”.
The fact that almost $3 million was awarded in a case where the complainant had a supporting witness is likely to give pause to the media in future. In an environment where major media companies have repeatedly axed staff to cut costs, media may well decide not to report on allegations of sexual assault and sexual harassment, given the financial risks. This is likely to be especially the case where there are no corroborating witnesses, which is common of sexual assault and harassment allegations.
As #MeToo was driven by frustration with the inadequacies of existing legal and workplace institutions to deal with issues like sexual harassment, this judgment may have the unfortunate repercussion of increasing self-censorship, closing an alternative path to holding perpetrators accountable, and may have a silencing effect on victims.