TV network denies buying interviewee sex and drugs

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Bruce Lehrmann outside courtImage source, Getty Images

Australia’s most-watched TV network has denied accusations it paid for sex workers and illicit drugs to secure an interview with an alleged rapist.

A former Seven Network producer, Taylor Auerbach, made the allegations while giving evidence in a defamation case.

Bruce Lehrmann is suing another channel, Network 10, over an accusation – which he denies – that he raped a colleague in parliament.

Seven has faced intense scrutiny over its exclusive with Mr Lehrmann but says it “acted appropriately at all times”.

“Seven is appalled by the allegations made in recent days. We do not condone the behaviours described in these allegations. They do not reflect the culture of Seven,” a spokesperson said on Thursday.

The accusations have prompted a last-minute resumption of Mr Lehrmann’s defamation case – likened to a quasi-criminal trial – just two days before the judgement was set to be delivered.

“Let sunlight be the best disinfectant,” Justice Michael Lee said when reopening the defamation case.

The rape allegation

In February 2021, Brittany Higgins shocked Australia when she alleged she was raped by a colleague inside a minister’s office in Canberra in 2019.

Her claims triggered marches attended by tens of thousands of women across the country, decrying the treatment of women in politics.

Brittany Higgins speaking at a rally in Canberra

Image source, Getty Images

Though he was not named in the report by journalist Lisa Wilkinson for Network 10 programme The Project, Mr Lehrmann says he was easily identifiable.

Six months later, he was charged by police over the alleged rape. But his trial in 2022 was aborted after juror misconduct. A retrial was later abandoned out of concerns for Ms Higgins’ mental health. Mr Lehrmann had pleaded not guilty to the charges.

Seven’s Spotlight programme then began chasing Mr Lehrmann, who was unable to give evidence at his criminal trial, for his side of the story.

In the two-part exclusive with the network he said he had no idea how Ms Higgins had ended up naked on a couch in the office they worked in, and spoke about the dire impact of the case on his life. The programme was later named as a finalist in Australia’s top media awards in the Scoop of the Year category.

But before his interview had even aired, Mr Lehrmann launched a defamation lawsuit against Network 10 and Ms Wilkinson, saying the alleged assault never happened and that they “utterly destroyed” his reputation.

Network 10, with Ms Higgins as a witness, said it would defend its report as substantially true.

The defamation trial

Defamation cases in Australia have a lower standard of proof than criminal cases and judges often allow reams of seemingly tangential evidence to help them make judgements on the credibility or character of witnesses.

Over five weeks, this trial heard from more than a dozen witnesses who built on evidence given at the criminal one.

Mr Lehrmann took to the witness box this time and Ms Higgins spent several days giving evidence herself. It also heard analysis from a lip reader flown in from the UK, hours of Ms Wilkinson and her Network 10 colleagues enthusiastically defending their work, and evidence from Mr Lehrmann’s ex-colleagues who told the court of his “bad vibes”.

Lisa Wilkinson outside court

Image source, Getty Images

But one of the biggest bombshells from the evidence concerned Network Seven.

At the time of its Mr Lehrmann interview, the network said it had “made no payment” to him but had “assisted with accommodation as part of the filming of the story”.

But in court, Mr Lehrmann revealed that Seven had agreed to pay his rent for a year, costing the network more than A$100,000 (£52,000; $66,000).

As Seven drew ire and accusations of dishonesty, the Walkley Awards promptly revoked the story’s nomination.

Ms Higgins has also accused Mr Lehrmann of leaking her private texts – which she supplied during the police investigation – but he has denied handing any documents to Spotlight.

The fresh evidence

The first rumblings that Seven had paid Mr Lehrmann more than it had disclosed came weeks ago, amid a completely separate controversy.

Messages that were leaked to the media allegedly showed that a Spotlight producer who was courting Mr Lehrmann for the interview had used a Seven credit card to pay for expensive Thai massages late at night.

Mr Lehrmann dismissed the allegation he had a massage as a “bizarre story from a disgruntled ex-Network Seven producer”.

But the producer – Taylor Auerbach – provided more than 2,800 pages of sworn affidavits for Network 10 to use in court in defending Mr Lehrmann’s defamation claim. In these documents, he alleged that Mr Lehrmann was the liar.

In a special hearing convened to test the allegations on Thursday, Mr Auerbach said he charged about A$10,000 in massages to the company card after an evening with Mr Lehrmann – before personally paying his employer back later.

But he alleged that Seven had footed the bill for several expensive dinners with Mr Lehrmann, and a golfing trip in Tasmania.

Most explosively, Mr Auerbach said in court it had also reimbursed Mr Lehrmann for other expenses – including illicit drugs, “prostitutes” and a brothel visit – via a “per diem” allowance.

It is unclear whether Mr Auerbach alleges Seven was aware of the nature of the charges he says it was reimbursing.

Mr Auerbach also rejected Mr Lehrmann’s assertions that he had not provided Spotlight with sensitive information such as Ms Higgins’ text message history or confidential police documents.

In criminal trials, prosecutors have to share their evidence with the accused but the defence has an obligation not to use it outside of court.

But Mr Auerbach claims Mr Lehrmann turned up to Seven’s offices with a massive binder of documents and photocopied more than 500 pages of evidence for the Spotlight episode. Citing as proof that documents were exchanged, Mr Auerbach provided images taken of a laptop screen showing some of Ms Higgins’ texts.

In the reflection of the laptop screen, there appears to be a bald man with thick black glasses – which Mr Auerbach says is Mark Llewellyn, Spotlight’s executive producer. The metadata of the photo shows it was taken at Mr Lehrmann’s accommodation at the time, Mr Auerbach claimed.

A photo of a laptop screen showing a text message, with a bald man in the reflection

Image source, Federal Court of Australia

Seven has said it will not reveal the source of the sensitive evidence it aired in its report, but noted that Mr Lehrmann had denied under oath it was him.

A Seven spokesperson said Mr Lehrman had never been reimbursed money allegedly used to pay for illegal drugs or prostitutes, and that the network had “at no point” asked anyone to delete or destroy any evidence.

Lawyers for Mr Lehrmann also told the court he had not received “per diems” from Seven for the expenses Mr Auerbach alleged, and that he had not provided the programme with documents.

They played – in slow motion – a bizarre video of Mr Auerbach destroying a colleague’s golf clubs, and argued that he had an axe to grind with Seven after his employment was not renewed in 2023.

“You are here today to do as much damage to your former employer and former colleagues as you possibly can… and you’re prepared to lie in that endeavour,” barrister Matthew Richardson said.

“No, sir,” Mr Auerbach replied.

The fallout

The defamation trial is still going, but Mr Auerbach’s evidence is already being used to attack Mr Lehrmann’s credibility as a witness. Plus, Network 10 has argued it shows both a contempt of court and an abuse of its processes – requesting the judge consider prosecuting him for that.

But it also has big implications for Seven, which was already under fire for its conduct in securing the interview, observers say.

Australia’s media code of ethics does not ban payment for interviews but it is increasingly frowned upon.

However the code does say that journalists cannot let commercial considerations undermine accuracy, fairness or independence, and that they must disclose when payments have been made.

“If half of this is true – and it’s yet to be tested in court – #7spotlight is an absolute disgrace,” Paul Barry, host of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation’s Media Watch programme, wrote on X.

Mr Auerbach has lost his job as an investigations producer at Sky News Australia over the saga, and another former Spotlight producer has also been sacked from a role as the head of media for New South Wales Police. Many suspect the fallout is likely to escalate.

One report by Sydney’s Daily Telegraph claims Seven Network owner Kerry Stokes is considering cancelling the Spotlight programme – which first aired in 2021 – to limit the damage to the network’s brand.

“It does raise questions as to who’s in charge at Seven and whether they should still be in charge,” Stephen Mayne, a shareholder activist and media commentator, told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation.

But others say it could also have wider ramifications for the integrity of Australia’s media industry.

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