An STC promotional photo for its production of King Lear

This is act three in Inq’s series on the media trial of Geoffrey Rush. Read the full series here.

“The Tele are running with a yarn which is highly libellous”

Jonathon Moran’s Daily Telegraph “world exclusive” about allegations against Geoffrey Rush landed with a splash in newspapers and websites across the world. But doubts emerged from the start.

The Hollywood Reporter — which a month earlier had plastered Harvey Weinstein, snarling like a bear with sharp teeth, on its front page under the word “EXPOSED” — led its story with a denial: “Geoffrey Rush denies allegations of ‘inappropriate behaviour’,” the headline read. 

On social media, questions were immediately raised about the lack of detail to support the allegations. “One very vague claim. One anonymous accuser… The dark side of fame in 2017,” tweeted Channel Seven’s entertainment reporter Peter Ford. 

“There’s a real media rush on this,” proclaimed Ben Fordham on 2GB radio. 

“250 accounts collated involving Don Burke, one against Geoffrey Rush we know very little about and denied by Rush. Journalists should exercise a little caution perhaps — the damage can be irreparable,” tweeted Sydney Morning Herald entertainment reporter Andrew Hornery, Moran’s main rival.

More worrying for News Corp were the divisions within its own ranks. Not only had Melbourne’s Herald Sun decided not to run the story, deputy editor Chris Tinkler sent out an urgent email to all staff, according to Media Watch, warning his journos to steer clear:

IMPORTANT NOTICE FOR ALL STAFF

Do not retweet or post any articles regarding GEOFFREY RUSH.

A follow-up text message, also obtained by Media Watch, was sent out to Herald Sun staff, warning reporters to “under no circumstances retweet/share/like/repost any stories about Geoffrey Rush on social media etc until further notice”, warning, presciently: “The Tele are running with a yarn which is highly libellous.”

News Corp’s culture warrior-in-chief Andrew Bolt also declared his support for Rush. “Here’s an unknown allegation from an unknown person about something unknown and he’s got to answer that,” Bolt declared on Sky News. “I think this might have stepped over a line”. 

* * *

Moran was clearly shaken by the antagonism created by his story. After seeing a tweet by actor Brandon McClelland in support of the “women” behind the allegation, he sent McClelland a Facebook message:

“Hey mate, apologies for reaching out direct but not sure how else to get in touch. I wrote the Geoffrey Rush story today and am being slammed. I am trying to push forward regardless and saw your tweet. Would you talk to me off the record on background?”

But McClelland declined to talk and emphasised that his tweet was meant as a general, not specific, comment. 

Moran and his editors pushed ahead with plans for a second story. In an email to Telegraph editor Chris Dore, deputy editor Anthony De Ceglie referred to a “mega creep interview from Rush” in The Sydney Morning Herald a few years earlier to promote King Lear, where Rush had admitted having a “stage-door Johnny crush” on costar Eryn Jean Norvill. 

The Telegraph delivered a follow-up front-page story which would later be excoriated by a judge. It alleged Rush had inappropriately touched an actor — a claim it said was supported by “two other [Sydney Theatre Company] actors” and various unnamed sources — under the headline “WE’RE WITH YOU”, alongside a photo of actor Meyne Wyatt with the quote, “I was in the show. I believe (her)”. 

But the article reproduced only part of Wyatt’s quote, which said “I believe whoever has come forward”. The quote from McClelland’s Facebook post also omitted a reference to “[believe] the women”, giving the impression that it related to the specific allegations against Rush, and that McClelland had some inside knowledge relating to the production. 

* * *

The Telegraph wasn’t the only one with problems on its hands. At the Australian Academy of Cinema and Television Arts (AACTA), where agitated sponsors were now threatening to pull funding due to Rush’s role as president, CEO Damian Trewhella emailed Rush asking him to resign. 

“Dearest GR,” he began: 

“It’s such an awful situation that the STC and Daily Telegraph have jointly brought about them — utterly diabolical. I sincerely hope you are holding up ok — it’s a storm full of bullshit that will pass. I write as unfortunately we are being swept up and almost smashed in the storm. While matters to do with the STC are entirely unrelated to us we are fast becoming collateral damage as a result of our association and the timing… We need to request extremely respectfully that you step aside until this matter resolves (it is not a resignation, merely as ‘step-aside’ …)”

The next day Rush stepped aside, issuing a statement through his lawyer, Nicholas Pullen and ending his six-year reign as AACTA president:

“Certain recent media reports have made untenable allegations concerning my standing in the entertainment community… It is unreasonable that my professional colleagues should be somehow associated with such allegations… in the current climate of innuendo and unjustifiable reporting, I believe the decision to make a clean break to clear the air is the best for all concerned.”

Moran jumped on the news, emailing Rush’s agent Ann Churchill-Brown to ask: “In light of Geoffrey Rush stepping down as [AACTA] president … Would he now like to say sorry to the victim? Does he regret his actions?”

Moran produced two more stories in The Sunday Telegraph. The first discussed Rush stepping down; the second was an in-depth interview with actor Yael Stone about the culture of harassment in the entertainment industry. Within a matter of months, Stone would write an 87-page affidavit as “Witness X” for The Daily Telegraph’s defence in the defamation case brought by Rush, accusing Rush of harassment. Moran’s article, however, made no such allegations. 

The next week, the 2017 AACTA awards took place, filled with all the grace and glamour expected from the biggest night for the Australian film industry. But harassment was the dominating topic of the evening. 

Angie Fielder, producer of Lion, a biographical drama starring Nicole Kidman which raked in the awards, commented in her acceptance speech, “as a film that was partly funded by the Weinstein company it would be remiss of us tonight not to acknowledge the incredible brave women and men who have come forward to break the silence on sexual harassment”. 

On the red carpet, actress Rachel Griffiths took to defend Rush, though said women had not been adequately protected in the industry: “Geoffrey Rush is not Harvey Weinstein, and I have had more than a handful of interactions with Harvey Weinstein.”

Next: Enter the lawyers

Peter Fray

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