‘Sordid’ evidence, a ‘perverse universe’: five key takeaways from the final day of the Bruce Lehrmann defamation trial

<span>Bruce Lehrmann arriving at the federal court in Sydney in February. His defamation trial concluded on Friday. </span><span>Photograph: Bianca de Marchi/AAP</span>
Bruce Lehrmann arriving at the federal court in Sydney in February. His defamation trial concluded on Friday. Photograph: Bianca de Marchi/AAP

The Bruce Lehrmann defamation case has concluded after dramatic testimony from the former Seven producer Taylor Auerbach.

Here are the key takeaways from the final day of evidence.

Bruce Lehrmann wanted payment of about $200,000 for Seven interview, court hears

Taylor Auerbach told the court he discussed a potential payment to Lehrmann in exchange for an exclusive interview with Channel Seven’s Spotlight program with Lehrmann’s media adviser John Macgowan.

The former Spotlight producer said Macgowan knew another individual – Vikki Campion, according to text messages released by the court – who had been paid $150,000 for an interview with Seven and had told Auerbach “‘we’ll start from there’ and we sort of talked about vaguely $200,000”.

Auerbach said the two men discussed potentially paying Lehrmann through a trust, rather than paying him directly.

In text messages tendered to the court between Auerbach and former Spotlight producer Steve Jackson, Auerbach writes: “[Lehrmann] has received a lot of pro bono legal support but has huge debts … Due to the nature of needing money, we are on a shortlist of two – with Nine … They want to do a deal that gives us domestic exclusivity over everything until we go to air … John Macgowan’s words: ‘how much are you able to offer?’”

Auerbach says $750 ‘pre-production expense’ was for cocaine and sex workers

An invoice was produced to the court on Friday by Seven of money paid by the network to Lehrmann for expenses in January 2023. These included hire car, receipts for a George Street bar and a $750 charge for “pre-production expenses”.

Auerbach told the court that line item referred to “Mr Lehrmann’s expenditure on cocaine and prostitutes”.

In one of the more amusing moments of the day’s proceedings, the lawyer representing Lehrmann, Matthew Richardson SC, wryly noted that it was implausible “that the two nights of prostitutes and illicit drugs were covered by a $750 entry for pre-production expenses”.

“Even the least worldly person in this room, which regrettably is probably me, Your Honour, [would know] that that is a stretch.”

In his closing statement, Matt Collins KC, for Ten, also referred back to what the court has heard was a $10,000 charge to the Seven credit card made by Auerbach in November 2022 for a Thai massage parlour. He said Auerbach was to be believed when he said the credit card charge was for Lehrmann’s benefit and was all part of an attempt to get him to sign on the dotted line for an interview.

“And somehow, in the perverse universe in which this program was apparently operating, Mr Auerbach was not terminated for spending more than $10,000 on the company credit card on illicit activities in connection with getting the story of the year,” Collins said.

Lehrmann not a fan of the ‘feminazis in the press pack’

Auerbach said he’d spent months developing a rapport with Lehrmann in the hope of building trust and convincing him to grant Channel Seven an exclusive interview.

Speaking about their connection, Auerbach said: “He appreciated the fact that I wasn’t sitting with the rest of the feminazis in the press pack.”

Justice Lee asks why he is being asked to go down ‘rabbit hole’ of ‘sordid’ evidence

Justice Lee quizzed Channel Ten’s lawyer about how the “sordid” evidence of Seven allegedly paying for sex workers and drugs had any bearing on the defamation proceedings.

“If I form the view that Mr Lehrmann is a man whose credit has been so impugned that I’d be unwilling to accept anything he said, unless it’s corroborated by a witness whose evidence I accept, or contemporaneous material, why would it be appropriate for me to get into this somewhat … how can I put it, sordid … [evidence]?”

“I am reluctant to go down paths which I don’t need to go.”

Journalism and the code of ethics under scrutiny

Justice Michael Lee was very interested over the course of Thursday and Friday’s proceeding with the importance of the code of ethics to journalists.

On Thursday, Lee requested information from counsel about how many of the journalists and producers at The Project involved in the Brittany Higgins interview, which is the subject of the defamation proceedings, were members of the Media Entertainment and Arts Alliance (MEAA).

Collins told the court no one involved in that episode of The Project was a member of the MEAA and therefore was not subject to the code of ethics, from which Lee read aloud during Friday’s proceedings, specifically focusing on two points:

  • Report and interpret honestly, striving for accuracy, fairness and disclosure of all essential facts. Do not suppress relevant available facts, or give distorting emphasis. Do your utmost to give a fair opportunity for reply

  • Do not allow personal interest, or any belief, commitment, payment, gift or benefit, to undermine your accuracy, fairness or independence

“Call me old fashioned but I would have thought, certainly when I was a copy boy at John Fairfax, and I was speaking to journalists, I would have thought that they believed that they should report and interpret honestly, striving for accuracy, fairness and disclosure of all the essential facts and would not allow a personal interest or any belief to undermine the accuracy, fairness or independence of the reporting,” Lee said.

Collins told the court that journalism was “a complicated profession, evolving profession involving different mediums of communication, different business exigencies”.