Lisa Wilkinson was so distressed in the wake of damaging leaks over her six-hour interview with Brittany Higgins that Ten Network CEO Beverley McGarvey feared for her “state of mind” and wanted her to have mental health support.
The bitter battle behind the scenes over Ms Wilkinson’s secret fears she was “isolated” by her employer, the hiring of security to protect the television host and her decision to hire top defamation silk Sue Chrysanthou SC has been detailed in new emails and texts tendered in the Federal Court.
The documents reveal for the first time that the Channel 10 star complained of the “weaponisation” of an alleged rape victim after her employer informed her that Brittany Higgins was opposed to the television host hiring her own barrister in the defamation trial.
Network 10’s head of litigation Tasha Smithies, who gave evidence on Tuesday and will return to the witness box for a second day, details the negotiations over legal counsel in her own affidavit tendered to the court.
In an affidavit, Ms Smithies reveals that Ms Higgins’ lawyer, Leon Zwier, was bitterly opposed to Ms Wilkinson hiring Ms Chrysanthou, a top defamation silk.
Mr Zwier, a partner at Arnold Bloch Leibler, previously had dealings with Ms Chrysanthou when she represented Geoffrey Rush in his defamation case and Mr Zwier represented actor Eryn Jean Norvill.
Mr Rush won the case.
In her affidavit, first reported on by Sharri Markson and Sky News, Ms Smithies notes that Ms Wilkinson’s affidavit claims there was a “weaponisation of an alleged rape victim in this correspondence put forward by Ms McGarvey”.
“I assume that Ms Wilkinson is referring to an email from Mr Zwier that Ms McGarvey forwarded to Mr Fordham and Ms Wilkinson on 15 March 2023 which stated the following,’’ she writes.
“For the avoidance of any other misunderstandings, Brittany has instructed me not to assist lawyers and counsel currently retained by Lisa Wilkinson to defend civil claims commenced by Lehrmann against Lisa Wilkinson,’’ Mr Zwier wrote.
“I am not prepared to work with Lisa’s current senior counsel, under any circumstances. And the more Brittany is required to deal with differing lawyers, the worse it is for her to manage the civil trial processes, to the detriment of all those defending Lehrmann’s civil claims.
“If Lisa Wilkinson subsequently elects to retain the same lawyers as Ten then the process will be smoother, more orderly and manageable.”
Ms Smithies notes that Ms Higgins was a critical third party witness from the trial, and was integral to any truth defence that Network Ten or, necessarily, Ms Wilkinson would put forward.
“We had no control over her legal representation, and Network Ten had limited dealings with them,’’ Ms Smithies said.
“I do not understand how informing Ms Wilkinson and Mr Fordham of the fact that Ms Higgins, a critical witness, did not want to assist their choice of legal representation constitutes weaponisation of Ms Higgins.”
Justice Michael Lee has reserved his decision in the defamation case brought by Bruce Lehrmann, who maintains his innocence.
He is now hearing evidence in a cross claim over who should pay for Ms Wilkinson’s million-dollar defence after she elected to hire her own barristers and solicitors to fight the case in conjunction with Ten’s legal team led by Matt Collins KC.
Her Logies speech is central to the case, because Ms Wilkinson argues she felt forced to secure her own legal team due to a lack of faith in Ten’s legal advice.
She also revealed she was “removed” from The Project because of “brand damage” in the case and it was not her own decision, as she had told viewers.
On June 7, 2023, Network Ten CEO Beverley McGarvey forwarded Ms Smithies an email that she sent to Nick Fordham, Ms Wilkinson’s celebrity agent.
“I have just spoken to Lisa to check in to see how she was given how challenging it has been for her this week,’’ Ms McGarvey said.
“As you are well aware she is really not in a great place, and I hope she is taking some professional mental health care? Let me know if she is not currently obtaining ongoing professional support, and we can assist in providing her access to our independent, confidential support services.
“She mentioned her legal fees, and it seems that she is alarmed by the amount.
“We objected at the outset to Lisa’s choice of counsel but have nevertheless confirmed that we will reimburse Lisa for those legal costs incurred by her that Ten is required to reimburse. As you know, these arrangements are in discussion between external lawyers who are best placed to resolve the full extent of Ten’s obligations.”
Ms Wilkinson was particularly distressed by the Spotlight story on Channel 7 that included hours of leaked audio that was provided to police and lawyers in the criminal trial but never tendered.
“I explained that we are doing all we can do within the confines of the law to deal with the situation around the Spotlight story.’’ Ms McGarvey wrote.
“I am not sure she was across that. Maybe she was but has a lot on her plate. A point of understandable consternation is the further reporting by those sections of the Australian media that are hostile to Lisa who are continuing to publish derogatory stories off the back of the Spotlight program.
“Understandably, she is very upset by that, but of course, we simply cannot make them stop. She made a point that we didn’t tell her when she was going to be on the front of The Australian – but we are not aware, in advance of publication, when these stories will break or the content of such stones.
“I just wanted to let you know we are concerned for her state of mind and appreciate this is difficult for her, noting that Ten’s lawyers are taking all the actions in response to the fallout from the Spotlight story that are legally available given the restraints of the current defamation proceedings.”
The Ten CEO later wrote again to Lisa Wilkinson’s agent, Mr Fordham.
“Can you please come back to me on the note I sent last week on how Lisa is doing; we are concerned about the strain these last few weeks are putting on her mental health,’’ she said.
“As such I do not feel it is appropriate that we meet tomorrow to discuss new projects, it feels very premature.”
Ms Wilkinson told the court that after she was axed from The Project she was promised an interview special, but it never eventuated.