Federal Court rules against Daily Telegraph in Geoffrey Rush defamation hearing

Geoffrey Rush has succeeded in having parts of The Daily Telegraph’s defence “struck out” after the newspaper carried stories accusing the actor of “inappropriate behaviour” while performing on a Sydney stage.

In a judgment this morning, Justice Michael Wigney said the newspaper’s justification defence should not be heard when the case comes to trial on the basis it was too “vague and imprecise”.

Three paragraphs of its qualified privilege should also be dismissed, he ruled, as they were too “ambiguous” and “likely to cause prejudice and delay in future conduct of the proceedings”.

Rush is suing The Daily Telegraph publisher Nationwide News and journalist Jonathon Moran “to address the slurs, innuendo and hyperbole they have created around my standing in the entertainment industry and in the greater community”.

He further claimed The Daily Telegraph had made “false, pejorative and demeaning claims” that caused “irreparable damage” to his reputation.

Under the headline “King Leer”, Rush had been accused of “inappropriate behaviour” while performing in the Shakespeare play King Lear at the Sydney Theatre Company in 2015.

It was claimed Rush touched actress Eryn Jean Norvell “in a way that made her feel uncomfortable” as he carried her onto stage in the final scene of the play. The touching was alleged to have taken place on five separate occasions despite her telling him to stop.

In his judgment at the Federal Court today, Justice Michael Wigney said in order for the defence of justification to be permitted, the publisher and Moran “have to prove the defamatory imputations….were substantially true”.

But the details they provided in support of their claim was “plainly deficient”, he said.

The defendant’s main “sting”, he said, was that Rush has engaged in “scandalously inappropriate behaviour in the theatre”.

The “main particular” relied on by Nationwide News to support that was the claim the actor had “touched [the actress] in a manner that made her feel uncomfortable” and that he continued to do so after she had told him “to stop doing it”.

“The principal deficiency in those particulars is that inadequate and insufficient details are given about the alleged touching,” Justice Wigney said.

“What part of Mr Rush relevantly touched the actress? Was it one or both hands or some other part of his body? And what part of the actress’ body was touched?

“What was the nature and duration of the “touch”? If Mr Rush was required to carry the actress, he would obviously have had to have some contact with parts of the actress’ body.

“What exactly distinguished the alleged touch from the contact that must otherwise have been made between Mr Rush and the actress during the scene? How and why did the alleged touch make the actress feel uncomfortable?

“Was the discomfort physical or emotional?”

Justice Wigney said “none of those questions were answered” and the details “not sufficiently specific and precise to enable Mr Rush to know the case he was required to meet”.

Because of the “vague and imprecise” nature of the allegations, Justice Wigney said The Daily Telegraph was “not capable of providing the truth of the defamatory meanings sought to be justified.”

In a further ruling, Justice Wigney said the publisher will not be permitted to subpoena Sydney Theatre Company, as it hoped to do.

That would amount to a “fishing expedition in the hope of finding something in support of its plea”, he ruled.

“If the publisher is unable to properly and adequately plead the facts and particulars in support of its defence of justification, it should not be permitted to use the Court’s compulsory processes to obtain information and evidence so as to establish a defence,” he said.


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