(Image: AAP/Joel Carrett)

This is act two in Inq’s series on the media trial of Geoffrey Rush. Read the full series here from Friday, July 3.

“I need to put several questions to your client, Geoffrey Rush.”

On November 10 — two weeks before Jonathon Moran’s story on complaints against Geoffrey Rush was published — Rosemary Neill, a senior writer at The Australian, emailed Sydney Theatre Company (STC) with the following question: “have you ever received a complaint about Geoffrey Rush’s behaviour?” The STC confirmed it had, without naming an accuser or explaining details of the complaint. 

Neill then sent questions to Rush’s agent Ann Churchill-Brown. “When did this ‘inappropriate behaviour’ occur and what did it entail?” she asked. 

Neill didn’t end up publishing anything, but her questions prompted Rush to contact STC executive director Patrick McIntyre, who confirmed the company had received a complaint, but couldn’t tell Rush what the complaint was about, or who made it, as he had recently stopped working with STC.

Rush then responded via Churchill-Brown: “I have been informed that a statement was made against me to a company manager, about a play I was performing in, regarding alleged behaviour towards a fellow employee. The revelation has astonished me. For my part, there were never any conceivable grounds for this perplexing statement.”

He also called his long-time friend Damian Trewhella, the messy-haired socialite CEO of the Australian Academy of Cinema and Television Arts (AACTA), the film and TV industry awards body where Rush was president and was critical to the group’s ability to source funding. 

A few days later, Trewhella recounted his conversation with the actor in a confidential email to his board members. After discussing Harvey Weinstein, Rush mentioned that he too had been “baited” on an issue “of this kind”. 

Rush had dismissed the claims as “bullshit” and a “symptom of the current climate”, Trewhella said — but had identified the scene in which actress Eryn Jean Norvill had complained about. “The only issue he could think of was when he was Lear at STC involving a scene in front of 900 people in which he carried his dead daughter,” Trewhella recalled. “There was allegedly some discomfort.” 

Concerned about the conversation with Rush, Trewhella contacted board member Anita Jacoby, who pushed to call in a crisis media expert. They settled on TV journo turned PR gun-for-hire Anthony McClellan. He showed up the next day and urged Trewhella and the board to ask Rush to step aside, voluntarily if possible, as the allegations would undoubtedly become public. 

* * *

As Daily Telegraph entertainment reporter Jonathon Moran pulled together everything he had on the substance of the allegations against Rush, the decision to publish the story — which would almost certainly ruin the career of an iconic actor — rested in the hands of two of the Murdoch tabloid machine’s most aggressive operators.

Telegraph editor Chris “Dorey” Dore has spent more than 25 years loyally honing his craft at News Corp — he’s now editor-in-chief of The Australian after stints at The Courier-Mail and Sunday Telegraph — where he often talks about the importance of making “timeless front pages”. 

Alongside him was deputy editor Anthony De Ceglie, a tall, square-jawed 31-year-old from Fremantle who started his career as a cadet journalist in regional Western Australia before moving to Sydney to join the Telegraph. Now editor of The West Australian, he shares Dore’s obsession for front page impact: “The front page,” he has often said, “has to be timeless.” 

Moran’s story so far hinged on a statement he had received from the theatre:

“Sydney Theatre Company received a complaint alleging that Mr Geoffrey Rush had engaged in inappropriate behaviour. The company received the complaint when Mr Rush’s engagement with the company had ended. The company continues to work with the complainant to minimise the risk of future instances of the alleged behaviour occurring in its workplace — but the complainant has requested that their identity would be withheld. STC respects that request and for privacy reasons will not be making any further comment.”

Moran had been led to believe that the complaint about alleged “inappropriate behaviour” was from Norvill, who played King Lear’s daughter Cordelia, and who Rush had to carry off the stage in the final scene. At some point — it would later emerge in court — he had an “off-the-record, not for attribution” conversation with McIntyre, who would tell him that the theatre had resolved “never to work with Mr Rush again”. 

Once De Ceglie and Dore made the decision to publish, Moran set about getting a response from Rush. It was 5:06pm by the time the questions were sent. De Ceglie helped Moran draft the questions, which Moran then directly forwarded on to Rush’s publicist, Churchhill-Brown. 

Moran and De Ceglie chose to name Norvill in the email but advised the STC that they would not be naming her in the article:

“Hi Ann. I’m writing this email with an urgent inquiry regarding a story running in tomorrow’s Daily Telegraph. I have been investigating an alleged incident of abuse by your client, Geoffrey Rush, during his time working on the STC production of King Lear. The following statement from the STC was provided yesterday confirming an incident of inappropriate behaviour took place.”

“It is our understanding [that Mr Rush’s] colleague, Eryn Jean Norvill, claims Mr Rush touched her inappropriate [sic] on a number of occasions. We are not naming the complainant. This is part of a broader investigation into a number of high profile people in the entertainment industry in the wake of the Don Burke scandal and previously the Harvey Weinstein allegations. Can you please provide an official response on behalf of Mr Rush as soon as possible regarding the incident and subsequent investigation by the STC.”

At 6.33pm, an email came back from the STC’s media relations officer Katherine Stevenson, saying that Norvill did not want to be part of the story in any way. 

“The claimant is extremely fragile and highly distressed by the situation and the subsequent media attention,” Stevenson said. “It is her story to tell and she should have the right to tell it at a time of her choosing and on her own terms.”

At 8.03pm, less than two hours before print deadline, Moran received a response from Nicholas Pullen, a seasoned defamation lawyer who has represented major TV networks and such figures as former senator and broadcaster Derryn Hinch in court. 

“Any report by you or The Daily Telegraph in the terms indicated will be grossly defamatory of our client,” Pullen wrote. “Your ‘understanding’ of what has occurred is, with the greatest respect, simply fishing and unfounded … Mr Rush has never been involved in any ‘inappropriate behaviour’. His regard, actions and treatment of all the people he has worked with has been impeccable beyond reproach.” 

Undeterred, Dore and De Ceglie decided to publish the story, which relied on one on-the-record source — the STC — and did not name the victim. 

“WORLD EXCLUSIVE” was the banner above the screaming headline “KING LEER”, sprawled across the paper’s front page over an image of Rush as a deranged Lear with white face paint and a crown of weeds. 

“Oscar-winner Rush denies ‘inappropriate behaviour’ during Sydney stage show” read the sub-headline, linking to a two-page spread inside under the headline “STAR’S BARD BEHAVIOUR”, which claimed the Oscar award-winning actor had been accused of “inappropriate behaviour” during an STC production of King Lear but had vehemently denied the allegations. 

And in case anyone missed the connection at the time, the story was placed strategically alongside a fresh article about Don Burke.

Next: The double down