At the end of his three-week defamation trial against The Daily Telegraph, Geoffrey Rush – the first person to go to court in Australia over a #MeToo-style story – looked a relieved man.
On leaving Court 18C of the Sydney law courts complex, the Oscar-winner swung an arm around the right shoulder of his solicitor Nicholas Pullen, gave it a squeeze and said: “Thank you.”
When he emerged from the lifts with his wife Jane Menelaus, he ran the gauntlet of the television on cameras and photographers one last time. Eyes straight ahead, with the same fraught expression he held for the previous 14 days of the case.
On the final day of argument, Mr Rush had again cupped his ears – he can be hard of hearing – and listened to argument that his claim could be worth “millions of dollars”.
His lead counsel, Bruce McClintock SC, argued the 67-year-old thespian had been put in the same category as #MeToo villains Harvey Weinstein and Don Burke. He said the King Leer headline made him out to be a criminal, and the way the paper used his denials only served to buttress its claims and increase suspicion.
The barrister said there was “a risk that Mr Rush might not work again” and that he should be paid “substantial damages”. The starting point, he offered, should be the maximum allowed under the uniform law cap ($398,500) plus special damages.
He said Mr Rush had earned $128,006 a month for the five years to June 30, 2017. “I’ll take off the six dollars Your Honour,” a mark of generosity that seemed lost on Tom Blackburn SC for the Telegraph.
Justice Michael Wigney noted evidence that said it could be 18 months before Mr Rush worked again. Mr Blackburn later suggested the actor was seeking “millions”.
Justice Wigney said he regretted that a busy work schedule meant he could not deliver a judgment until at least early 2019. But if he does find for Mr Rush, 18 x $128,000 ($2.3 million) worth might be a fair opening bid.
The judge could then roll into the mooted defamation action by former NSW Opposition Leader Luke Foley. Mr Foley has nominated the Federal Court as his preferred forum over allegations of sexual impropriety that this week ended his chances of becoming premier.
He will likely be badged as another person feeling the consequences of the #MeToo movement, as Mr McClintock suggested of Mr Rush. (Actor Craig McLachlan also has a defamation claim on foot.)
‘Wink, wink, nudge, nudge’ implication
The barrister said the celebrated actor had been unfairly grouped with notorious #MeToo figures such as Mr Weinstein and Mr Burke, and a picture of Mr Burke and references to the former TV host in Telegraph articles which accused Mr Rush of sexual harassment had invited readers to believe that Mr Rush “has done exactly what Don Burke has done”.
“The effect was ‘wink, wink, nudge, nudge, Mr Burke and Mr Rush are in exactly the same category’. A very substantial number people who read this material would have taken into account the publicity around the #MeToo movement,” Mr McClintock said.
He theorised that the newspaper was “looking for a [Harvey] Weinstein story” to counter a Fairfax investigation into Mr Burke than ran only weeks before the Telegraph’s story.
The silk noted the author of the stories, Jonathon Moran, had written that they were “part of an ongoing series of articles on the #MeToo movement involving Harvey Weinstein, Kevin Spacey and Don Burke”.
“It’s a very strange trilogy, I must say,” said Justice Wigney.
The judge added that it was “fair to say that the #MeToo movement – whatever the #MeToo movement is, it can be considered in a very broad way by some people – had picked up” the story about the Oscar winner’s conduct in a 2015-16 production of King Lear.
Mr Rush sued News Corp, publisher of the Telegraph, over a poster and two articles in late 2017 that said the Sydney Theatre Company had received a complaint accusing him of “inappropriate behaviour” towards a cast member, who was later identified as Eryn Jean Norvill.
Mr Rush says the articles accused him of being a “pervert, a sexual predator and of inappropriate behaviour of a sexual nature”.
Ms Norvill testified that Mr Rush “belittled” her by simulating groping in a rehearsal room, touching a breast during a preview and tracing fingers across her back when backstage in the final week of the play. She played Cordelia, the daughter of Mr Rush’s titular character.
Mr McClintock told Justice Wigney he did “not need to go beyond the natural and ordinary meaning” of the publications.
He paid particular focus to the headline “King Leer” that appeared under a photograph of a half-naked Mr Rush, which was a publicity shot for the Shakespearean tragedy about a mad regent.
“That photograph, taking up the entire front page, must have had an enormous impact
“Then you take account of the words underneath, King Leer.
“It’s clearly suggestive of sexual impropriety of some sort.”
The counsel added the photo “has a look of guilt about it – a look of anguish.” Justice Wigney described it as “a theatrical mugshot”.
Mr McClintock said the sub-headline – Oscar-winner Rush denies inappropriate behaviour during Sydney stage show – recalled the comment of Mandy Rice-Davies when she was told that Lord Astor had denied that he had an affair with her during the Profumo scandal of the 1960s in London – “Well he would, wouldn’t he”.
“You can hardly blame the hypothetical reader taking an allegation of serious sexual impropriety from these articles.”
On the first day of his case, Mr Rush said: “There are aspects of the #MeToo movement I find very potent and very strong.”
It’s a fair bet it doesn’t include a 15-day trial that has clearly taken its toll.