Telegraph branded ‘recklessly irresponsible’ as judge awards aggravated damages to Geoffrey Rush

Nationwide News, the publisher of the Daily Telegraph, has been ordered to pay aggravated damages to Geoffrey Rush as a judge branded stories alleging “inappropriate behaviour” by the actor as “recklessly irresponsible journalism of the very worst kind”.

Justice Michael Wigney said the publisher had not proved that Rush had behaved inappropriately towards Eryn Jean Norvill, who performed alongside Rush in a Sydney Theatre Company production of King Lear.

Nationwide News was ordered to pay $850,000 in aggravated damages, more than double the $389,500 cap for “general” damages.

Justice Wigney also found Rush had suffered economic loss with the amount of special damages to be determined at a later date.

The payout could run into many millions of dollars after the court said Rush was likely to lose 50% of his potential earnings over the next 18 months, and 25% for the following six months.

Geoffrey Rush with wife Jane Menalaus

In delivering his judgment at Sydney’s Federal Court, Justice Wigney savaged the Telegraph and said the evidence of Norvill was not “credible or reliable” despite acknowledging she has been “dragged into the spotlight” and had “no vested interest in its outcome”.

She was also a witness “prone to exaggeration and embellishment”, he concluded.

The nature of the judgment is certain to frustrate the #MeToo movement in Australia amid concerns the treatment of Norvill will deter women from coming forward over what they regard as inappropriate behaviour.

In a terse statement, Daily Telegraph editor Ben English said the company was particularly disappointed with the criticism of Norvill.

“We are disappointed with Justice Wigney’s findings, in particular his dismissal of Eryn Jean Norvill’s evidence,” he said.

“We disagree with his criticisms of her and she has our full support. We will now review the judgment.”

Norvill, who was in court with her family to hear the judgment, said she stood by “everything I said at trial. I know what happened”.

Eryn Jean Norvill: ‘I stand by everything I said at trial’

Justice Wigney described it a “sad and unfortunate case” that would have been better dealt with away from the “harsh and adversarial” world of a public defamation hearing.

Rush had sued the Telegraph and its journalist Jonathon Moran over a series of stories in November 2017 which said the actor had engaged in “inappropriate behaviour” while appearing in a production of King Lear on a Sydney stage.

Rush denied all wrong-doing and claimed the stories carried the imputations that he was a “pervert”, a “sexual predator” and that he had committed sexual assault.

One front page headline read “King Leer”.

During the three-week defamation trial last October, Norvill told the court that during one production of King Lear Rush had “deliberately” stroked her breast and, as they waited off stage, traced his hand across her lower back.

The actress also claimed Rush continually made “sexual gestures” towards her during rehearsals. She said she felt “frightened”, “threatened” and “belittled”.

In an hour-long reading of a summary, Justice Wigney tore into the Telegraph and Moran for a lack of “bona fides” in their conduct which meant they were liable to pay aggravated damages.

Justice Michael Wigney

He concluded that to the “ordinary reasonable reader” who is “prone to a degree of loose thinking and who reads between the lines”, the stories implied that Rush was a “pervert”, a “sexual predator” and someone who had “engaged in sexually inappropriate behaviour”.

The stories were “improper and unjustified,” he told the packed court, and were reported in an “extravagant, excessive and sensationalist manner”.

“Nationwide News and Mr Moran were reckless as to the truth or falsity of the imputations they conveyed and failed to properly inquire into the facts before they published,” he said.

“This was, in all the circumstances, a recklessly irresponsible piece of sensationalist journalism of the worst kind, the very worst kind.

“Indeed, in all the circumstances it was difficult to avoid the conclusion that it was calculated to damage.”

The stories emerged after an unofficial complaint had been made by an actress – later revealed to be Norvill – who had appeared alongside Rush in the 2015/16 production.

Norvill, who said she had never wanted to go public, played Cordelia, the daughter of Lear who was played by Rush.

Justice Wigney acknowledged that Norvill was “not a party to this proceeding” and had been “dragged into the spotlight by the actions of Nationwide and Mr Moran”.

But he dismissed her evidence and ultimately believed Rush and the testimony of fellow King Lear performers Helen Buday, Robyn Nevin and director Neil Armfield who all jumped to the defence of Rush.

Listing the allegations – which included Rush sticking his tongue out at Norvill and licking his lips, touching her back and breast and making groping gestures – Justice Wigney said he was “not satisfied on the balance of probabilities that the incidents took place as alleged by Nationwide and Mr Moran”.

He said the weight of evidence provided by Buday, Nevin and Armfield was “solidly against the occurrence of those incidents”.

Justice Wigney also rubbished the evidence of another King Lear actor, Mark Winter, who told the court during the trial he had witnessed Rush touching Norvill’s breast during a preview performance.

“Having heard and considered the evidence concerning those alleged incidents as a whole, I was not persuaded that Ms Norvill’s evidence concerning them was credible or reliable,” he said.

“Nor was I persuaded that Mr Winter’s evidence concerning the one incident he said he witnessed was credible or reliable.

“The basic problem for Nationwide and Mr Moran was that, on Norvill’s own account, the incidents during rehearsals were seen by, or most likely seen by most of the cast and many of the crew who were working on the play.

“Yet Ms Norvill’s evidence was not only uncorroborated but was contradicted by not only the evidence of Mr Rush but also the evidence of Mr Armfield, Ms Nevin and Ms Buday.”

Referring specifically to the most serious accusation – that Rush deliberately touched her breast during a production – Justice Wigney said that given the “difficult and complex” scene the events alleged by Norvill were “improbable or implausible”.

While not ruling out that Rush might have touched Ms Norvill’s breast, if he did so it was unintentional and “not in any way gratuitous or untoward”.

During the trial, Norvill suggested fellow cast members stayed quiet about the behaviour because of a “level of hierarchy that kept that level of fear and silence in place”.

She added there was a “culture of bullying and sexual harassment” in the industry which “enabled” the behaviour of Rush to go unpunished.

But Justice Wigney said such an accusation was an example of a witness “who was, at times, prone to exaggeration and embellishment”.

“The apparent suggestion that other members of the cast and crew witnessed inappropriate behaviour by Mr Rush and were unwilling or unable to do anything about it was not only entirely uncorroborated but was directly contradicted.”

Her evidence alleging inappropriate behaviour had also been inconsistent with her actions, Justice Wigney said, pointing out on-going familiarity and affection in emails she had sent to Rush at the time the alleged behaviour was taking place.

One email referred to him as Dearest Daddy DeGush and was signed off with hugs and kisses, he said.

The Oscar-winning actor has long-rejected any wrong-doing, saying he suffered an “emotional spiral” after publication of the stories, felt “sick to his stomach”, “demonised” and “distraught”.

Rush, his wife Jane Menalaus and Norvill, were present in court to hear the judgment.

The full judgment of Justice Wigney can be read here.


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