Daily Telegraph loses Geoffrey Rush defamation appeal, ordered to pay full $2.9m in damages

Geoffrey Rush will be awarded $2.9m in damages, Australia’s largest defamation payout to a single person, after The Daily Telegraph lost its appeal against last year’s ruling in the defamation case.

This morning, the Federal Court dismissed every one of the masthead’s grounds of appeal, including a bid for a retrial and efforts to reduce the amount of damages.

The breakdown of that $2.87m – a far cry from the $50,000 Rush’s barrister told the court he offered to settle for – includes $850,000 in non-economic loss, including aggravated damages; $1.06m in past economic loss, including interest; $919,678 in future economic loss (meaning the stories’ impact on Rush’s income); and $43,302.10 interest on the non-economic loss.

Non-economic damages in defamation cases are usually capped at $398,500. But in the case actor Rebel Wilson brought against Bauer Media, the Victorian courts said this cap can be exceeded if aggravated damages apply.

The Daily Telegraph said Justice Wigney – who presided over the initial proceedings – was wrong to follow this principle.

But, in a 173-page judgment, Justices White, Gleeson, and Wheelahan said that the figure of $2.87m in damages is “appropriately high but not manifestly excessive having regard to the extremely serious nature of the imputations that were conveyed by the publications, the extent of publication, the hurt and distress caused to Mr Rush by the publications, the conduct of Nationwide News that aggravated the harm caused to Mr Rush and the harm caused to Mr Rush’s reputation”.

The amount of damages had to reflect that the stories – one of which carried the front-page headline “King Leer” – left Rush “devastated and distressed and consumed by grief”, the judgment read.

The judges also agreed with Rush that readers were likely to “consider a person who engaged in the conduct conveyed by the publications to be a ‘pervert’, particularly in so far as it concerned behaving as a sexual predator, and a man’s use of authority or stature in the workplace to obtain sexual gratification by inappropriately touching a non-consenting co-worker.”

The appeal judges added that Justice Wigney “was entitled to find that the harm which Mr Rush suffered” was increased by The Daily Telegraph’s “unjustified conduct in filing their defence and amended defence, and by the calculated amplification of the allegations in them by the extravagant and sensationalised repetition of them in The Daily Telegraph.

“There was no error in the Judge’s finding that the publication of that article was improper and unjustifiable in all the circumstances.”

The case centred on allegations that Rush behaved inappropriately towards fellow actor Eryn Jean Norvill in a 2015-16 production of King Lear. Norvill was not named in The Daily Telegraph’s reports, and did not provide a comment for them, but later agreed to give evidence in the court case when her identity was revealed.

When Rush won the case, Nationwide News, The Daily Telegraph’s publisher, appealed the scathing judgment in favour of the actor. In his decision, Justice Wigney said: “This was, in all circumstances, a recklessly irresponsible piece of sensationalist journalism of the worst kind.”

Bauer Media similarly appealed when it was ordered to pay Wilson $4.5m in that high-profile defamation case. However, on that occasion, the magazine publisher was successful; the court slashed the damages figure by 90%, leaving Wilson with just $600,000.

After Wilson’s payout was cut by more than 85%, and before the Rush judgment, barrister Lloyd Rayney held the record for the largest defamation payout in Australia to a single person, which stood at $2.6m.

Editor of The Daily Telegraph, Ben English, responded to losing the case. In a statement, he called for defamation law reform and denounced sexual harassment in workplaces.

“We will continue to report on the issues such as these which are of great concern to the Australian public,” he said.


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