Rush awarded $850k: a set-back for #metoo?

Pick up a newspaper today and you’ll read “there are a number of aspects of the evidence which raise significant issues about her credibility as a witness and the reliability of the evidence she gave concerning the disputed events … she was a witness who was, at times, prone to embellishment or exaggeration”.  Ouch.

What you (probably) won’t read is the over 200 page decision of Justice Wigney in Rush v Nationwide News Pty Ltd (No 7) [2019] FCA 496. Justice Wigney acknowledges that Ms Norvill was placed in a difficult and unusual position.  She was forced into the unenviable role of Nationwide’s “star witness” in circumstances where she made clear from the outset that she never wished to make a complaint against Geoffrey Rush. 

The decision – at its core – is an attack on “a recklessly irresponsible piece of sensationalist journalism of the worst kind”.

Ms Norvill’s position has echoes of the predicament in which ABC journalist Ashleigh Raper was placed.  An incident involving Luke Foley – of which she neither complained, nor made public – was used as a political hot potato by his adversaries with absolutely no regard to the wishes of the “victim”.

Both are examples of appropriation of women’s stories.  Stories, which it appears, neither of them wished to voluntarily tell.

To be clear:  the #metoo movement is a fundamentally different beast.  It is about women having the confidence, through solidarity of shared experience, to say you’re not alone.  It is about women owning the message, and sharing the story they wish to tell. 

Is the Rush decision a set-back for the  #metoo movement?  No.  The Rush decision is simply a product of the function of the Court to determine a defamation case.

For employers, does the Rush decision change anything?  No.  Rather it reminds them of the critical role they play in setting and enforcing standards in the workplace.  Employers need to ensure that to the extent possible, they vigorously protect a complainant’s confidentiality to prevent rumour mongering or potential reprisals in the workplace.

The law has demonstrated itself to be a blunt instrument for change when it comes to tackling the statistic prevalence of workplace sexual harassment.  The #metoo movement started a very important conversation, and remains a powerful engine of social change. 

Author: Amber Sharp

Leading Partner: James Mattson