The Federal Court took a theatrical turn on Monday as Geoffrey Rush’s much-anticipated defamation case against the Daily Telegraph’s publisher Nationwide News opened in Sydney.

To a nearly-full courtroom on the court’s 18th floor, Rush’s barrister, Bruce McClintock SC, talked through the “lies” he said the Daily Telegraph had knowingly published in its now-infamous “King Leer” front page story and follow-ups.

Most of the public gallery on the opening day of the trial was made up of the media — particularly juicy quotes from the bench and witness box were punctuated with the pitter-patter of journalists capturing the words on their laptops.

As well as having special media rooms set up near the courtroom, the court is accommodating the intense media interest in the case by allowing one ABC camera in for the first 10 minutes of Monday morning’s session, to film B-roll footage you’ll see on all TV news reports about the case from here on in. They were allowed to take shots of the barristers, judge, Rush and a wide shot of the courtroom before being banished. One TV reporter complaining about the quality of the shot was overheard to be reminded by a colleague: “It’s not Spielberg”.

Amongst Rush’s moving and quotable descriptions of how the news stories made him feel — “I felt as though someone had poured lead into my head”, “my blood ran cold”; “I think [the front page] looked like a police lineup, it made a madman from the theatre look criminal in reality”; “it’s been the worst 11 months of my life” — he described at length his career, patronages, mentorships, ambassadorial roles, awards, nominations — establishing his reputation that has now been damaged.

He threw in star-studded anecdotes, entertaining the handful of sightseers who’d dropped in to see Rush’s performance: his time living with Mel Gibson in Kensington around the time Mad Max was released; how he was offered a role as Liberace in the wake of Shine’s success (“I guess they thought I should be in piano films”); he had time to study for King Lear while filming Pirates of the Caribbean with Johnny Depp — “[Depp] had to go home for surgery and to bring his dogs back“.

In describing his early career, including time in his university theatre troupe, Rush caused a flurry online yesterday, saying he hadn’t expected to become an actor, but would instead be “doomed”, given his arts degree, to be a teacher or work at the ABC.

In his opening statement, McClintock has made clear that his case will be highly critical of the stories’ author Jonathon Moran, an entertainment reporter for the Tele who will not be called to give evidence. Moran was repeatedly referred to as a “gossip columnist” — McClintock emphasised that he was not an “investigative journalist”, and quoted from emails sent by Moran that suggested he was desperate to land his own local story following the Harvey Weinstein scandal in the US, and Fairfax and the ABC’s investigation and revelations about Don Burke last year. 

The allegations — that a cast member had reported inappropriate behaviour by Rush during the run of the Sydney Theatre Company’s King Lear — weren’t put in any detail to Rush, he says, and he only became aware there had been a complaint when The Australian’s Rosemary Neil put them to him a few weeks before the Tele’s story. The Oz, also published by Nationwide News, didn’t run with the allegations.

Media types are watching the case closely, especially given the Rebel Wilson case that set aside a cap for aggravated damages, which Rush will be claiming. The court was told that in the four months before the Daily Telegraph published its stories, Rush had earned $1.5 million, compared to $44,000 in the 10 months since. “Not surprisingly given his stature in the industry, he was a very high income earner … We’re talking a very substantial claim for loss of income,” McClintock said.

Rush’s case will call other cast members who McClintock says will provide evidence that the inappropriate behaviour never happened. Tom Blackburn SC, acting for the Daily Telegraph’s publisher Nationwide News, will call Eryn Jean Norvill, who played Rush’s daughter in the production and who made the complaint.

Rush will continue to give evidence on Tuesday.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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