For three years, Australians have been consumed by a rape allegation that sparked a criminal trial; a slew of civil cases; legislative change; reviews of police, a prosecutor and workplace conduct; tens of thousands marching to protest gendered violence; and a national reckoning over the treatment of women.

In 2021, former political staffer Brittany Higgins came forward in media interviews, alleging that about two years earlier she had been raped by a colleague inside Australia’s Parliament House, on a couch in the office of their mutual boss Linda Reynolds, a high-ranking lawmaker.

This week, a federal judge ruled that she was telling the truth. The finding concluded an at-times salacious trial that gripped the country and its media — including the accusation that one outlet, Seven Network, paid for drugs and sex work services to secure an interview with the man accused of rape, Bruce Lehrmann. The network has denied those claims.

The ruling Monday was in a defamation suit brought by Lehrmann against a journalist, Lisa Wilkinson, and the television channel, Network 10, that had aired Higgins’s story. Lehrmann continues to deny the allegation.

Wilkinson told reporters outside the court: “I feel glad for the women of Australia today.” She and Network 10 had relied on a truth defense, meaning they could not have defamed Lehrmann if the court concluded their story was correct.

Higgins’s allegation was central to Australia’s #MeToo moment, with outrage laser-focused on goings-on at Parliament. In 2021, the country’s attorney general was also accused of rape — claims he denied — and a review found that about half of Parliament employees surveyed had been bullied, sexually harassed or sexually assaulted in a work context.

Both Lehrmann and Higgins became household names “for reasons neither of them would wish to be,” said Rachael Burgin, professor of criminal justice at Swinburne University of Technology and chief executive of Rape and Sexual Assault Research and Advocacy, an Australian nonprofit organization.

She said she hoped Monday’s “momentous” decision would “bring an end to the ongoing pain, trauma and mud-sledging of the victim in this case,” referring to press and social media scrutiny of Higgins.

“She has absolutely changed Australia for the better,” Burgin added. “She stood tall.”

A criminal trial charging Lehrmann with committing sexual intercourse without consent — to which he pleaded not guilty — was abandoned in December 2022 because of juror misconduct. It was not reopened with a new jury out of concern for Higgins’s health.

In his ruling Monday, Justice Michael Lee said of the decision to sue for defamation that, “having escaped the lions’ den, Mr. Lehrmann made the mistake of going back for his hat.”

“He has now been found, by the civil standard of proof, to have engaged in a great wrong,” he said, though he emphasized that Lehrmann had not been convicted of a crime.

The trial provided a stream of media fodder Down Under.

Caught up in it was the Seven Network television channel, which had broadcast exclusive interviews with Lehrmann in 2023. A former producer testified that Lehrmann received perks from the network including reimbursement for cocaine and services from sex workers — which Seven denies. Lehrmann testified that he received a year’s rent worth about $65,000 from the channel, public broadcaster ABC reported.

Lee did not rule on the veracity of the producer’s claims, which he thought were tangential to the central legal question.

Seven and Lehrmann’s attorneys did not respond to requests for comment.

Peter Bartlett, a defamation law expert who successfully represented a media outlet in another recent headline-grabbing trial, said the ruling against Lehrmann could “be a boost for freedom of speech in Australia,” which is not constitutionally protected there.

In Australia, editors and in-house lawyers tend to be more conservative than in the United States when deciding what to publish, Bartlett said. Under Australian law, someone sued for defamation usually must prove that a claim was true — rather than the aggrieved party proving it was false — except in limited protected contexts.

Bartlett defended Fairfax Media when it was sued by a decorated soldier, Ben Roberts-Smith, over stories that alleged he had illegally killed unarmed prisoners in Afghanistan. In June, the judge in that case also found the stories were substantially true.

“In the two most recent high-profile decisions in Australia, Roberts-Smith and Lehrmann, the plaintiffs have both failed,” Bartlett said, calling it a “very rare” period in the Australian defamation world. In both cases, “the trials have been far more damaging than the original publication,” he added.

Higgins’s allegation also became a political issue. She and Lehrmann were both employed by the Liberal Party — which heads Australia’s conservative coalition, in government at the time — when the rape happened. In 2022, Prime Minister Scott Morrison issued a public apology to Higgins for “the terrible things that took place” in Parliament.

Burgin said that the question of what happened in the early hours of March 23, 2019, in Reynolds’s office has been “omnipresent” in Australia, the subject of “arguments around the dinner table, disagreements among friends.”

“It was treated like a soap opera, where new characters were dragged in every moment,” she said. “Unfortunately, these characters — these are real people.”





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