Geoffrey Rush defamation case: newspaper's appeal 'weighs heavily' on actor

Michael McGowan

The Daily Telegraph’s appeal against the record $2.9m judgment against it in the Geoffrey Rush defamation case “weighs heavily” on the Oscar-winning actor, an Australian court has heard.

The Sydney tabloid newspaper, through its owner News Corp, is appealing against Justice Michael Wigney’s verdict in the Rush case, citing 16 grounds on which it claims the trial was miscarried and that the judge’s conduct of the case “gave rise to an apprehension of bias”.

In April Wigney ruled the Telegraph had defamed the actor by alleging he “engaged in inappropriate behaviour” during a theatre production of King Lear. Last week the court heard Rush will receive $2.9m in damages based on past and future lost earnings.

It it is the largest ever defamation payout to a single person in Australia after the Victorian court of appeal last year slashed the actor Rebel Wilson’s damages payout from $4.5m to $600,000 over defamatory articles in Woman’s Day magazine.

Related: Geoffrey Rush to receive record $2.9m damages in Daily Telegraph defamation case

The Telegraph lodged its notice of appeal at the beginning of this month, and on Monday the federal court heard both parties want the appeal heard in August.

“Given the nature of the proceedings and the attention it’s attracted, this appeal obviously weighs heavily on him and he wishes it to be determined as quickly as possible,” Rush’s barrister, Sue Chrysanthou, said.

The Telegraph is appealing against both the judgment and the severity of the damages awarded to Rush. Justice Anthony Besanko on Monday gave the newspaper until next month to file amendments to its appeal.

On Monday the court heard the Telegraph will challenge the $850,000 figure for non-economic damages awarded to Rush were “excessive”.

It will argue that Wigney was wrong to follow the reasoning of the Victorian Supreme Court in Wilson’s high-profile defamation dispute against publisher Bauer Media when calculating the figure, with Telegraph barrister Clarissa Amato, saying the Wilson decision was “plainly wrong and ought not to be followed”.

While defamation payouts in Australia are capped, in the Wilson case the Victorian Supreme Court ruled the cap is abolished in cases where aggravated damages are warranted.

In his judgement Wigney ruled Rush was entitled to aggravated damages” and the cap “accordingly does not apply”.

The Daily Telegraph front-page story, published under the headline “King Leer” in November 2017, reported the Sydney Theatre Company had received the anonymous complaint but provided no further details.

Follow-up articles were published the next day, which Wigney said “doubled down” on the story.

Rush sued the newspaper and the journalist Jonathon Moran, claiming the articles conveyed the imputation that Rush was a “pervert”, a “sexual predator” and “committed sexual assault”.

In his April judgment, Wigney said the reports in the Telegraph were “in all the circumstances, a recklessly irresponsible piece of sensationalist journalism of the worst kind”.

He said the evidence given against Rush by his co-star, Eryn Jean Norvill, was uncorroborated by fellow cast members and found she was “prone to exaggeration and embellishment”.