As the fallout continues from Thursday’s judgement in the Geoffrey Rush defamation case, industrial relations experts have a message for victims of workplace sexual harassment – don’t be discouraged to speak up and report it.
Federal Court Justice Michael Wigney awarded damages to Rush against Nationwide News, the company that owns The Daily Telegraph, over two stories the paper published about the Oscar winner’s alleged “inappropriate behaviour” towards co-star Eryn Jean Norvill.
Justice Wigney described Norvill as not “entirely credible” and a witness who was prone to “exaggeration and embellishment.”
Miles Heffernan, Litigation Director at Discrimination Claims, said the outcome of the case shouldn’t discourage victims of workplace sexual harassment to come forward to make a complaint.
“It can be one of the hardest things to do, and it takes a lot of courage, but women – and men – who experience sexual harassment should know there is help available, and they will be believed,” he said.
In November 2017, the News Corp-owned The Daily Telegraph published an article with the headline “King Leer”.
The story said that the Sydney Theatre Company had received an anonymous complaint about “inappropriate behaviour” by Mr Rush during the production of King Lear in 2015 and 2016.
The person who had made the complaint was co-star Eryn Jean Norvill, who played Cordelia, the daughter of Rush’s character, King Lear.
Norvill, who did not want her complaint made public, and who did not cooperate with Telegraph reporter Jonathan Moran, would later allege in court that Rush “inappropriately touched” her while on stage five times, and that he followed her into a bathroom during a party and stood outside of her cubicle until she told him to “f— off”.
Moran’s initial story alleged that during one rehearsal Rush had “hovered his hands” above his co-star’s chest and “made groping gestures in the air with two cupped hands intended to simulate groping and fondling breasts”.
“He was striking, gesturing up and down my torso and groping above my breasts… and kind of raising his eyebrows, bulging his eyes, smiling, licking his lips,” Norvill told the court.
The 34 year-old actress also claimed that while she was playing dead, Rush stroked his hand across the side of her right breast and on to her hip during a preview performance.
She also claimed that on a different day, Rush had put his hand under her shirt on her lower back, and on another occasion, sent her a text message that said he thought about her “more than is socially appropriate.”
Rush strongly denied any wrong doing.
“I was at the bottom of the rung in terms of hierarchy and Geoffrey was definitely at the top,” she told the court.
A fellow cast member, Mark Winter gave evidence that he saw Rush cup Norvill’s breast.
“I saw Geoffrey’s hand cupping around the bottom of EJ’s breast, which was something I hadn’t seen before on stage,” he said.
Rush denied that he deliberately touched her breast, her lower back under her shirt when they were backstage or making lewd gestures and comments towards her.
Judge says Norvill not ‘credible or reliable’
Justice Wigney was scathing of the The Daily Telegraph’s truth defence, ruling in favour of Rush, and awarding him an initial payment of $850,000 with further damages to be awarded in May which are expected to be in the millions of dollars.
But it was Justice Wigney’s comments about Norvill that angered many – and sparked a backlash on social media.
“It is not for the court to provide some broader social commentary on sexual harassment in the theatre or entertainment industry in Australia or the Me Too Movement.
The role of the court is, in simple terms, to apply the laws of defamation in Australia to the case as pleaded by the parties and the facts to have been proven.
For the reasons already given, the impression I gained about Ms Norvill was that she was a witness who was prone to exaggeration and embellishment.
I do not accept that she was an entirely credible witness, or that the evidence she gave against Mr Rush’s conduct was reliable.
I consider that the evidence Ms Norvill gave concerning Mr Rush’s behaviour during the rehearsals was exaggerated and unreliable”
Social media outrage
Twitter and Facebook were flooded with the hashtag #I believeEJ soon after the judgement was handed down.
Sexual harassment victims should not be deterred
Mr Heffernan from Discrimination Claims regularly represents victims of sexual harassment, and urged those affected by such conduct to not lose hope after last week’s court decision.
“This case was about defamation involving a celebrity and a pretty despicable tabloid rag, and a gossip hound who didn’t care in the slightest about the woman at the centre of the allegations when he decided to write about them,” he said.
“Victims of sexual harassment should know that this won’t happen to them, and courts and tribunals are usually extremely sympathetic to genuine cases.
“Please don’t be afraid to speak up and come forward and seek expert legal advice, because no one should have to put up with unwanted and unlawful sexual behaviour.
“We can make it stop, and we can ensure you receive the compensation you deserve to send a message to perpetrators that this sort of conduct is not on.”
Miles Heffernan is one of our specialist team at Discrimination Claims who can assist people who have been subjected to sexual harassment or sex discrimination.
If you have experienced sexual harassment, you may be entitled to compensation.
For help and advice, please call our team at Discrimination Claims today on
1300 853 837
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