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Australian actress Eryn-Jean Norvill leaves the Supreme Court in Sydney in Sydney (Image: AAP/Paul Braven)

The media spectacle of actor Geoffrey Rush’s defamation case against The Daily Telegraph’s publisher Nationwide News and gossip columnist Jonathon Moran continued yesterday as a Federal Court hearing room was again packed out as a decision was made public.

Rush is likely to receive record damages after the court found the Tele defamed him in its now-infamous “King Leer” front page story about inappropriate behaviour to a castmate during a production of King Lear. In finding Rush had been defamed, the court took the evidence of Rush, his director and friend Neil Armfield, Robyn Nevin and Helen Buday over that of the castmate, Eryn Jean Norvill, 34, and the one other actor who gave evidence for the Tele Mark Winter.

Norvill didn’t participate in the Tele’s story and had not wanted her complaint made public, but gave evidence during the trial and sat just metres away from Rush in the courtroom in Sydney’s legal district yesterday, wearing a purple shirt and purple ribbon on her blazer — the colour of International Women’s Day. Journalists typing furiously glanced up at her as Justice Michael Wigney dismissed her evidence, saying she was prone to exaggeration and there were too many inconsistencies between her evidence and her behaviour at the time of the alleged inappropriate behaviour. Behind Rush were supporters and onlookers — mostly of his generation — including Nevin. 

In weighing up Norvill’s evidence, Wigney said he couldn’t accept it given that she had given interviews at the time of the production praising Rush, and because she had shown signs of friendship towards him — things Norvill attributed at trial to the power imbalance between herself and Rush. He also said he found “on the balance of probabilities” that the inappropriate touching she claimed never happened, believing the evidence of Armfield and the other, senior castmates.

Wigney said his role was only to apply the law of defamation. “It is not for the court to provide some broader social commentary about sexual harassment in the theatre or entertainment industry in Australia, or the Me Too movement, or the effect that Australia’s defamation laws may have in relation to that movement,” he said.

Outside court, Norvill said she stood by her evidence at trial (“I was there”) and called for change in her industry. “We need to make genuine cultural change in our professions and industries,” she said. “We can do it, but only if we acknowledge and confront with honesty the problems and complexities of power imbalances in our workplaces. It has to be possible for a young woman working in theatre, who feels unsafe in her workplace to get that situation fixed.” 

She also thanked actor Yael Stone, who told the ABC and The New York Times that Rush had acted inappropriately toward her when they were acting together in the Belvoir St’s Diary of a Madman. Stone said she’d felt unable to speak up at the time because of the power imbalance between herself as an emerging actor, and the very well known Rush.

The generational divide between supporters for Rush and Norvill was clear. As Norvill was speaking outside court, a woman of Rush’s generation stopped to ask what the media pack was about. When told Rush won, she emphatically said, “Good”, and stalked off. Shortly afterwards on social media, a different demographic got a Twitter hashtag trending in support of Norvill — #IstandwithEJ.

While Wigney was critical of Norvill, he acknowledged she hadn’t chosen to be involved in the Tele’s story, and he saved his harshest words for the Sydney tabloid. He said it was a “sad and unfortunate case” that would have been better dealt with in a different way to a defamation proceeding. In finding that Rush was entitled to aggravated damages ($850,000), he said the articles were published in an “extravagant, excessive and sensationalist manner”, without regard to the truth of falsity of the imputations they published. “This was, in all the circumstances, a recklessly irresponsible piece of sensationalist journalist of the worst kind,” he said.

The messy trial is over — both Rush and Norvill said outside court that there were no winners — but the implications will flow on as lawyers return to court next month to argue what is likely to be millions of dollars of compensation for economic loss, in addition to the aggravated damages already awarded.

Peter Fray

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