geoffrey rush
Geoffrey Rush (Image: AAP/Bianca De Marchi)

Reporting on the Geoffrey Rush trial was a rollercoaster of a ride.

There were hundreds of pages of documents to read, dozens of calls to make, and years of reports to go through — 10,000 words of reporting is a lot, but that’s less than half what we originally wrote. 

Neither Georgia Wilkins nor I had attended any of the trials in person so we relied on recollections and documents to build the story. 

The trial was hilarious to go through because at times the transcripts read like a bad soap opera — star-studded, riddled with plot holes and accentuated by strange outbursts of song. 

But it was also upsetting. It had a devastating effect on the ability of people to speak up about issues with powerful counterparts.

Eryn Jean Norvill was put on trial. Her relationship with Rush was laid bare, and every text and emoji that either had sent was scrutinised. Justice Michael Wigney ruled that she was uncredible, unreliable and prone to exaggeration. 

Australia’s Me Too movement never gained the power, publicity or momentum of other countries. Just a handful of high-profile men have been named as harassers, the most recent being former justice Dyson Heydon. I know there are many more.

Journalists have had to put their stories on hold as editors get spooked at the possibility of a multimillion-dollar trial. Witnesses have withdrawn, afraid they’d have to go through what Norvill did.

Importantly the defamation case wasn’t supposed to be about the alleged harassment of Norvill — it was about The Daily Telegraph’s portrayal of Rush. But at the same time that’s exactly what it was. 

Wigney — esteemed, honourable, knowledgeable and with an impressive history — was put in a position to make a ruling about how Rush — famous, an Australian superstar of whom Wigney was a fan — behaved towards Norvill, a young actor early in her career.

Rush had handpicked Norvill to act alongside him in King Lear after Yael Stone, who later accused Rush of sexual misconduct, turned down the role. 

Power was at the very core of their relationship. 

The full court’s appeal ruling dismissed claims that Wigney had overlooked the power imbalances between the two. 

Both during the trial and in the appeal, judges questioned why Norvill kept replying to Rush’s “playful” emails and texts in an affectionate manner. 

‘Just go with the flow’

I question whether those in the court have ever had the discomfort of having to awkwardly laugh at a sexual advance, thinly disguised as a joke or innuendo, to maintain a peaceful relationship with superiors. 

As Norvill testified, when placed in tricky situations where the consequences could have devastating effects on relationships or careers, “survival mode” kicks in. Sometimes it’s better to give in to that little voice pulsating in the back of your head: “Just go with the flow.” 

I did a training course with a humanitarian organisation on women’s safety a few years back. As well as learning how to apply a tourniquet and how to sit in a convoy while driving through war zones, we learnt the importance of recording sexual micro-aggressions. 

That accidental touch on the bum isn’t so accidental if it happened to four other women that month. 

Norvill did the right thing — she recorded what she experienced, not so she could change her situation but so if others came forward they might be taken more seriously, faster.

Instead the opposite happened: Rush became near-untouchable. 

The trial was lengthy, with expensive lawyers and plenty of media scrutiny. Putting the judicial process aside, my thoughts are with Norvill — a woman who made one complaint, which she didn’t want to be taken further, which she didn’t want to be actioned, which she never wanted to be identified overwho had to take the stand to defend herself. 

The story to me is a failure in multiple parts. The failure of Norvill’s identity to be kept anonymous after she recorded her complaint. The failure of the Tele to do some solid reporting and potentially contribute — rather than hinder — the Me Too movement. And the failure of the court to treat Norvill with the respect she deserved when coming forward with her claim. 

Australia’s defamation laws are an absolute failure, especially when addressing sexual harassment allegations.

To gain any momentum in the Me Too movement, and to encourage people to speak up, Rush’s case has proven Australia’s defamation laws need a rethink.

Peter Fray

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