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The Guardian - AU
The Guardian - AU
Amanda Meade

Bruce Lehrmann case sends Seven, Nine and Ten into internecine TV warfare

Bruce Lehrmann outside the federal court in Sydney.
Bruce Lehrmann outside the federal court in Sydney. Photograph: Bianca de Marchi/AAP

It’s been open warfare in the media as the nation awaits a decision in the Bruce Lehrmann v Network Ten and Lisa Wilkinson defamation case on Monday.

And we don’t mean the recent Ten v Seven drama in the federal court in which the network that aired The Project interview with Brittany Higgins introduced new evidence in their defence case accusing Seven of reimbursing Spotlight interviewee Lehrmann for drugs and sex workers.

Last week Justice Michael Lee allowed Ten to present the additional evidence delaying his judgment by a week and airing claims by a former Spotlight producer which put the program’s methods in securing the exclusive interview under the microscope. Seven denied the claims outright and Lehrmann’s lawyer challenged them in court.

This week saw Nine’s mastheads take the gloves off against its traditional television rival, Seven, in a series of sensational reports in the Sydney Morning Herald and The Age.

Nine alleged in a report that veteran Seven commercial director, Bruce McWilliam, had effectively forced the Herald to shelve a story in 2022 about the Sunrise program. He allegedly told the journalist her inquiries had led to the then-executive producer of the program, Michael Pell, self-harming and included a photograph of a bloodied Pell. Weekly Beast saw this photograph at the time and it is graphic.

McWilliam, who recently announced his retirement, is alleged to have said: “If you publish untrue allegations. And he tops himself. It’s on you … And we are determined to protect him.”

McWilliam told Weekly Beast he was surprised anyone had a problem with him sending the photo of Pell to a journalist as he was “protecting a colleague and friend”. He maintains he did not know the photo was old and he sent it on the day he got it.

“Firstly as I had a duty if he was in a fragile state and secondly because I felt the accusations were over the top,” he said.

The Herald and the Age published their 3,500-word investigation 18 months after the story was allegedly shelved, claiming that Pell had not self-harmed but had just fallen over some time earlier and cut his head.

When McWilliam responded on Wednesday by sending journalists at other organisations a lengthy text message by way of explanation, the mastheads published his entire message – complete with cheeky annotations. Brutal.

“I’m a friend of Janet Albertson (sic) [Albrechtsen, of The Australian] who I think is a great journalist and I’ve copied her on this reply,” was just one of the lines the report claimed McWilliam sent. “I was pretty amazed that Fairfax would go to the trouble of devoting more than 2 1/2 pages, including the front page in writing this it is obviously a pile on, but never mind I don’t take it personal.”

So senior was McWilliam at Seven – where he has been Seven West chairman Kerry Stokes’ right-hand man for decades – it was his name on the federal court affidavit at the Lehrmann hearing last week.

In the affidavit McWilliam explained why the network had not handed over more documents in relation to the Spotlight interview when it was subpoenaed last year. He pointed the finger at the executive producer, Mark Llewellyn, alleging in the affidavit that he had been assured by Llewellyn that the team only spoke on the phone or in person with Lehrmann and that accordingly he believed there were no written communications between Spotlight and Lehrmann.

Spotlight on Spotlight

Late on Thursday reports emerged Mark Llewellyn had left the building and had hired John Laxon, an employment lawyer to manage his exit from Seven. Laxon, Llewellyn and Seven have been approached for comment.

Former Spotlight producers Taylor Auerbach and Steve Jackson both lost jobs as a result of the Lehrmann trial: the former at Sky News and the latter with the NSW Police.

Spotlight, it would appear, has survived all the bad press and lives on to present a program about Ozempic on Sunday night at 8.45pm: “Obesity is now a bigger problem than world hunger, but is Ozempic the miracle cure?”

On Monday at 10.15am Lee will hand down his decision on whether Ten has established, on the balance of probabilities, that Lehrmann raped Brittany Higgins in then defence minister Linda Reynolds’ office in 2019. Lehrmann has consistently denied the allegation and maintains no sexual activity took place at all between the pair.

A parting shot

The Australian’s media section was not to be left out of this McWilliam drama. It claimed to have reproduced its own text messages from the veteran executive who is famous for sending pithy missives.

“‘Mate, you’re a piece of shit’: Bruce McWilliam unplugged in furious farewell,” was the claim in the headline.

In response to questions from Oz media editor James Madden, McWilliam allegedly said Madden was a joke and an idiot, adding “mate, you’re a piece of shit” for good measure.

The sobriquet McWilliam gave Madden in his text message to other journalists however, was “a flea journalist”. Madden did not include that insult in his piece.

Sky’s the limit

Chris Uhlmann, who retired about 18 months ago, has joined Sky News Australia and taken a swipe at the ABC along the way.

The former ABC and Nine political editor who helped launch the ABC’s 24-hour news channel in 2010 said he had a “brutal reality check on just how hard it is trying to keep pace with Sky” when he was on the ABC.

But it was just five years ago Uhlmann was on Nine’s Today show being highly critical of Sky’s methods and lack of influence outside Parliament House.

“One of the big forces in the United States was Fox News,” Uhlmann said. “And one of the big forces in this building - it doesn’t have much purchase beyond this building because it’s a cable network - is Sky News.

“And Sky After Dark has been running a campaign against [then PM] Malcolm Turnbull,” he said. “Sky After Dark at the moment is turning Liberal National party voters into One Nation voters and they’re not coming back.”

Peek Channel Seven

It might not be a good time to pull back the curtains at Channel Seven newsroom, but nonetheless an invitation went out this week to viewers for “an exclusive behind-the-scenes with your local news”.

“Get to know your local news team as we discover the passion, precision and credibility that goes into every broadcast in intimate Q&A sessions,” the invitation read.

Warfare is like a box of chocolates?

Meanwhile on Channel Nine, Today co-host Karl Stefanovic compared the situation in Gaza to a bar of chocolate in an interview with the prime minister, Anthony Albanese, which also included the phrases “poking a bear” and “much ado about zip”.

In a live cross on Channel Nine, Stefanovic asked Albanese: “But separating Hamas and a Palestinian state is like kind of separating the milk and the dark chocolate in the Cadbury Top Deck. I mean, it’s just about impossible, isn’t it?”

Albanese: “Well, that’s not right. That’s not right. When you look at the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank it is not run by Hamas.”

Oh look, it’s Bruce Lehrmann

There have been more than a few marginal stories published about the Lehrmann case. We bring you two examples of the genre: one from the Sydney Morning Herald and one from the Daily Telegraph this week.

“Clearly Bruce Lehrmann is not a man who lets looming legal judgments get in the way of a good time,” wrote editor-at-large Matthew Benns in a story about Lehrmann moving to North Sydney. The piece was accompanied by multiple paparazzo shots of the man of the moment and two women walking along the street in the rain.

“On the day Justice Michael Lee announced the new date for the judgment in Lehrmann’s defamation case the man in question decided to step out with two women,” the report said.

But it was this line that left us scratching our heads: “He allowed the ladies to protect themselves from the rain, one holding an umbrella while the other put a coat over her head”. What does Benns mean? That Lehrmann should have been holding the umbrella, like a gentleman?

The Herald also had a fresh angle on Lehrmann’s move to North Sydney, written by none other than the paper’s legendary chief investigative reporter, Kate McClymont. The front page story on Friday was “Lehrmann’s karaoke hits annoying chord”.

And it’s the story that had everything: a scandalous court case, alleged noise complaints, karaoke, a $4m-plus house and bonus slide show of real estate photos.

“Bruce Lehrmann and his mates have already angered their new neighbours, who have described them as “complete ferals” who belt out karaoke until all hours, including a rendition of Whitney Houston’s I Will Always Love You,” the report began. The report was number one on the SMH website site on Friday morning.

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