The sausage factory

The sickening spectacle of Bruce Lehrmann’s defamation case against Network Ten exposes the worst in our media and our politics

Sausages. No one wants to see how they’re made, but like it or not we’ve all had a front-row seat this week into the sausage factory that is power, justice and the subterranean world of our mainstream media, where many players linger waiting to pounce on a scoop no matter the cost. This week, Bruce Lehrmann’s defamation case against Network Ten and presenter Lisa Wilkinson (yes, he was the one to instigate the proceedings) once again rose from the dead like the dancing ensemble in Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” video clip, ready to parade itself before all and sundry in one of the tawdriest sagas in recent Australian public life. Network Ten made a last-minute plea to Justice Michael Lee this week to hear new evidence from former Spotlight producer Taylor Auerbach, who alleged that thousands of Seven Network dollars were spent on drug use and “massages” in an attempt to secure an interview with Lehrmann. At times, it has sounded like a B-grade rip-off of The Wolf of Wall Street.

It would be easy to give into the amusement of it all, with so many outrageous details and larger-than-life characters – some of whom resemble nothing more than head-nodding extras in the background of the worst soap opera. But here we are, and the issues at play are too serious to be flippant about. They impact real people, and they send a chilling signal to anyone else who has experienced what has been alleged at the heart of this story. From the moment the alleged rape of former staffer Brittany Higgins in Parliament House was made public in 2021, the unleashing of powerful forces to protect many of those involved has sent the message that anyone thinking of challenging a perpetrator in the public realm ought to think twice before doing so. The spectacle is traumatising for so many.

As someone who writes, broadcasts and speaks with many First Nations people whose lives have been impacted by the various justice systems across the country, the grotesque display of wealth, power and entitlement brought on by this defamation case has been nauseating. For around three minutes on Thursday, we watched the live stream as the court’s time was used to show a video of star witness Auerbach snap the expensive golf clubs of a former colleague, Steve Jackson, out of spite. The video was shown at the behest of Lehrmann’s lawyers, presumably to tar Auerbach’s credibility as a witness for Network Ten. This case is happening at a time when there are First Nations people languishing – and all too regularly dying – in remand while awaiting a court hearing because our court systems are so clogged up.

As for what it all means for journalism, Media Watch host and veteran journalist Paul Barry summed it up by observing that if even half of what is being alleged is true, then Spotlight – one of the flagship programs of Australia’s highest-rating television network – is an “absolute disgrace”. Once the cheque book is opened to acquire an interview, it ceases to be journalism, and that includes paying for rent, meals, Thai massages and anything else that might be revealed before this whole sordid misadventure is through.

Instead of providing journalism in the public interest, Seven seems like nothing more than a side hustle for a bunch of frat boys, only interested in spin and PR stunts. Lehrmann’s Spotlight “exclusive” did nothing but muddy the truth, and for what? To give a platform to a man who had been sufficiently wined and dined to the point of glee by the time of the interview, uttering the now infamous words, “Let’s light some fires.”

There is plenty of reputational damage to go around, but at the end of this saga, coming not long after the Ben Roberts-Smith affair, it would seem the Seven Network (which, let’s remember, is not even a party to this litigation) may come out with as diminished a reputation as any of the others. Sadly, it’s just another nail in the coffin of our flagging fourth estate, and another tawdry episode that makes the public feel that, once again, they’ve been duped.

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