News Corp, owner of the Australian newspaper The Daily Telegraph, is to appeal the decision which awarded actor Geoffrey Rush $850,000 in damages for defamation over allegations that he engaged in “inappropriate behaviour” during a theatre production of King Lear.
The Telegraph published its first article making the allegations about Rush’s conduct under the headline “King Leer” in November 2017, with follow-up articles the next day.
Nationwide News, the News Corp company which is the publisher of the Telegraph, claims that the award of damages was excessive, and that the federal court justice presiding over the trial who described the newspaper’s reports as “a recklessly irresponsible piece of sensationalist journalism of the worst kind”, appeared biased.
The Notice of Appeal, which seeks judgment in favour of the newspaper or a re-trial, says that the trial “miscarried in that the conduct of the proceedings by the primary judge gave rise to an apprehension of bias’’.
The Notice alleged that an example that gave rise to the apprehension included the finding that the newspaper’s witness, actress Eryn Jean Norvill, was “an unreliable witness prone to exaggeration and lacking in credibility”.
Norvill, who was not the source for the articles about Rush, but emerged late in the day to give evidence at trial, claimed in court that Rush made breast-groping gestures over her torso, called her “yummy” and “scrumptious”, stroked her lower back and touched her breast during a preview performance.
She said she “believed he had done it deliberately”, but Rush vigorously denied the claims, and the Judge accepted his evidence.
The Telegraph will also challenge the Judge’s “award of excessive special damages”, which have yet to be finally determined by the Court, saying in its Appeal Notice that they were awarded for a time exceeding the period the actor’s agent said it would take for him to receive job offers at the same rate as before the newspaper’s reporting.
Rush had claimed at trial to be entitled to between $4.8 million and $20 million for lost future income.
If the appeal does not succeed, the pay-out will be one of the largest defamation awards for a single claimant in Australian history.
Actor Rebel Wilson’s damages award was reduced on appeal from $4.5 million to $600,000 last year.
The tendency for claimants to win significant damages at trial when suing publishers for defamation means that Australia is a challenging legal environment for the media.