December 18, 2023

Queensland MP reveals text, call with Higgins about alleged rape

By Michaela Whitbourn
Updated December 18, 2023 — 1.26pmfirst published at 9.08am
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Watch the hearing live here from 10.15am (AEDT)

A Queensland MP has given evidence in the Federal Court that Brittany Higgins told him she had been raped in Parliament House within days of the alleged assault.

“I absolutely remember the word rape. That’s not something that you forget, and she absolutely did say he had taken her back to Parliament House,” said Liberal National Party MP Sam O’Connor during his evidence in Sydney on Monday.

Brittany Higgins leaves the Federal Court last month.Credit: Rhett Wyman

O’Connor was called to give evidence by Ten as it defends a defamation suit brought against the network and journalist Lisa Wilkinson over an interview with Higgins, aired in February 2021.

The member for the state seat of Bonney said he had known Higgins for about a year when she told him in a phone call on March 29, 2019, that another Liberal Party staffer had “taken her back to Parliament House” after a night out drinking with colleagues and had raped her.

Queensland MP Sam O’Connor.

He told the court he did not know the name of the staffer at the time, but Higgins had said he had worked for the former attorney-general George Brandis and was from Toowoomba.

Lehrmann had worked for Brandis before he secured a job in the office of then defence industry minister Linda Reynolds.

The court heard that Higgins had sent O’Connor a text message before the call saying that a “super f—ed up thing happened a little while ago”.


He gave evidence that Higgins had been a “real go-getter” and “her dream job was to be a press secretary, a media adviser, in Canberra”. She “loved every minute of that role”, he said.

But O’Connor said that after the alleged assault on March 23, 2019, Higgins “absolutely was different”. She was testier, he said, and they sometimes had arguments over small things.

“Something had absolutely changed,” he said, and it was “more visible in person”.

‘Worked with Four Corners’

On March 20, 2021, days after The Project aired Wilkinson’s interview with Higgins on February 15, Higgins texted O’Connor: “I’ve been staying with Lisa W and [her husband, author and journalist] Peter FitzSimons in Sydney for the past few days. They’ve been so wonderful.”

O’Connor was also asked if he knew what Higgins was referring to when she suggested she had “worked with Four Corners behind the scenes to help piece it all together”.

Lisa Wilkinson and her legal team including barrister Sue Chrysanthou, SC, in the Federal Court in Sydney on Monday.Credit: Flavio Brancaleone

The court heard that the ABC’s flagship current affairs program had aired a report titled Bursting the Canberra Bubble on March 8 that year. O’Connor said he believed the text “probably” referred to that broadcast.

The evidence in the trial is expected to conclude by Wednesday, with Thursday and Friday set aside for closing submissions from the parties.

Veteran news boss ‘initially sceptical’

Later on Monday, veteran news boss Peter Meakin, who advised Ten on the Higgins interview as an editorial consultant, gave evidence that he knew the story would be legally contentious.

He said in an affidavit filed in court that he was “initially sceptical” about the story and “wanted to see what Ms Higgins said about the matter and what other evidence there was to support her claims”.

Peter Meakin outside the Federal Court in Sydney on Monday.Credit: Flavio Brancaleone

He said watching an edited version of Wilkinson’s interview with Higgins, recorded on February 2, 2021, was a factor in changing his view. Meakin agreed he did not watch the uncut two-hour interview.

“I’ve never spoken to Ms Higgins,” he said. He agreed that his view of Higgins was shaped entirely by what The Project’s producer Angus Llewellyn provided to him or told him.

The court heard that Meakin emailed Llewellyn on February 3, 2021, and said he planned to advise that approaches for comment or interviews with third parties would not be made “without the approval of Brittany”, and that in the case of political figures “it won’t be until much closer to the transmission date”.

Meakin told the court it was his intention to keep Higgins advised as part of their “duty of care to her”.


He agreed with Lehrmann’s barrister, Matthew Richardson, SC, that it would not be appropriate for Higgins as a complainant or source to “dictate” who should be contacted for comment, but he said he did not think she did.

The court heard that all requests for comment were made after about 2.30pm on Friday, February 12, 2021, and specified a deadline of 10am on Monday, February 15. The Project interview aired that night.

The introduction to The Project interview referred to “a young woman forced to choose between her career and the pursuit of justice”. The court has heard that the government said in a statement to Ten that Higgins was told she would be supported if she chose to make a police complaint and there would be “no impact on her career”.

Meakin said that he believed the introduction implied that Ten was “believing her [Higgins’] story more than the government’s”. He said he did not believe the government’s response was “buried at all”.

Expert lip-reader

Ten has flown the UK-based lip-reader Tim Reedy to Sydney to give evidence as part of its defence, and he will be cross-examined as early as Tuesday.

CCTV showing Bruce Lehrmann and Brittany Higgins at The Dock in Canberra on March 22, 2019.Credit: Spotlight, Channel Seven

Federal Court Justice Michael Lee ruled this month that Ten could tender a report in which Reedy expresses an opinion on words spoken by Lehrmann and his then colleague Higgins at The Dock on March 22, 2019. Reedy’s opinion is based on an analysis of CCTV footage from The Dock.

Lehrmann’s legal team unsuccessfully argued that the report should not be admitted in evidence. They will cross-examine Reedy this week.

Lee made clear that his ruling allowing the report to be admitted in evidence was not an indication of the weight he would ultimately place on the opinions expressed in it.

He said last week that Reedy would be required to attend court in person in Sydney for the cross-examination.

“If he’s giving evidence then he’s going to have to get on an aeroplane,” Lee said.

“I know it will cost some money, but I expect there’s been quite a bit of money already spent.”

‘All hers, all hers’

Both Lehrmann and Higgins have given evidence during the trial and Lehrmann was cross-examined about whether he made a series of comments to Higgins at The Dock, including telling her to skol a drink. He has denied encouraging Higgins to get drunk.

The court has been shown CCTV footage in which Lehrmann placed three drinks in front of Higgins at The Dock and gestured towards them.

Bruce Lehrmann and his legal team leave the Federal Court in Sydney on Friday.Credit: Dominic Lorrimer

Ten’s barrister, Dr Matt Collins, KC, put to Lehrmann during cross-examination that he said “all hers, all hers” to another staffer. Lehrmann denied saying those words, but said he did not recall what he said.

“You were encouraging Ms Higgins to get drunk?” Collins asked.

“No,” Lehrmann replied.

He disagreed that about 11.50pm he gestured towards a drink and told her: “Drink that all now.”

He also disagreed that Higgins responded, “I don’t want to” before he said, “Come on, you’re not leaving that.”

The footage showed Higgins skolled the drink. Lehrmann agreed that it appeared the footage showed Higgins consumed six spirit-based drinks between his arrival after 8.30pm and 11.49pm.

Brittany Higgins outside the Federal Court in Sydney on December 4.Credit: Louise Kennerley

The lawsuit

Lehrmann is suing Ten and Wilkinson over an interview with Higgins, aired on The Project on February 15, 2021, that he alleges defames him by suggesting he is guilty of raping Higgins in the office of their boss, Reynolds.

He has always maintained his innocence.

Lehrmann not named

Lehrmann was not named in Ten’s interview and a preliminary issue in the case is whether he was identified because of the details provided in the broadcast, including the fact that the alleged perpetrator had worked in Reynolds’ office.

Meakin said on Monday that “we did take advice on how far we could go without being guilty of identifying Mr Lehrmann”.

If the court finds Lehrmann was identified in the interview, Ten and Wilkinson are seeking to rely on defences of truth and qualified privilege.

Under the truth defence, Ten must prove on the balance of probabilities that Lehrmann raped Higgins.

While this is less onerous than the criminal standard of proof beyond reasonable doubt, the so-called Briginshaw principle applies in civil cases involving serious allegations and requires courts to proceed cautiously in making grave findings.

Qualified privilege relates to publications of public interest and requires a media outlet to show it acted reasonably.

Sexual assault charge dropped

Lehrmann’s ACT Supreme Court trial for sexual assault was aborted last year due to juror misconduct. The charge against Lehrmann was later dropped altogether owing to concerns about Higgins’ mental health.

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Michaela Whitbourn is a legal affairs reporter at The Sydney Morning Herald.Connect via Twitter.


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