/ 22 June 2022

Higgins trial dogged by a magic word

Image source: AAP
Image source: AAP

The trial of the man accused of raping former Liberal staffer Brittany Higgins has been delayed over concerns that the line between untested allegations and guilt had been “obliterated”. It follows Network 10 journalist Lisa Wilkinson’s speech at the Logies on Sunday night as she accepted the award for TV’s most outstanding news coverage or public affairs report for her coverage of the claims. The trial was set to commence on Monday, but ACT Supreme Court Chief Justice Lucy McCallum said Wilkinson’s comments and the subsequent coverage meant securing a fair trial for Higgins’ alleged attacker, former Liberal staffer Bruce Lehrmann, was in doubt at this point in time. He has pleaded not guilty to the charges.

There’s a bit of a backstory… In April, Lehrmann’s lawyers unsuccessfully applied to delay or stop the trial because of the mountains of media coverage of the case. McCallum rejected that, saying she believed he would receive a fair hearing from a jury with the appropriate directions, but she warned the media to be careful. Yesterday, she said she was wrong to reject the defence team’s request to restrict the media’s reporting of the case. And a week out from the trial’s scheduled commencement, McCallum wasn’t happy with Wilkinson‘s Logies speech, an interview the next morning on WSFM radio, and widespread coverage on social media that “almost universally assume the guilt of the accused“. It was also revealed yesterday that Wilkinson spoke to prosecutors about the speech she planned to give if she won the Logie and was warned that the publicity it generated could lead to the trial being delayed.

No one’s happy, but the trial has been put on ice for a while. A further hearing will be held tomorrow to determine when a new trial date can be set – some reports are tipping October for it to go ahead. Prosecutors say they will ask the court to grant a non-publication order at the hearing. Until then, McCallum’s words for Wilkinson will be ringing around Australia’s newsrooms: “Mightn’t good journalism be mindful of criminal proceedings and remembering to insert the magic word ‘alleged’?”

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