Geoffrey Rush has won his defamation case against Nationwide News, publisher of The Daily Telegraph, over two articles published in 2017 alleging “inappropriate behaviour” towards fellow actor Eryn Jean Norvill during Sydney Theatre Company’s 2015/2016 production of King Lear. Federal Court Justice Michael Wigney ruled that Nationwide News failed to prove that the imputations made in the two articles were substantially true.

Geoffrey Rush, inappropriate behaviour, allegations, Daily TelegraphGeoffrey Rush

“This was, in all the circumstances, a recklessly irresponsible piece of sensational journalism of the worst kind,” Wigney said in a summary of his judgement.

While noting that Norvill had been “dragged into the spotlight” by The Daily Telegraph, and had “nothing to gain” from testifying, he described her as a witness “prone to exaggeration and embellishment” and said he was “not satisfied on the balance of probabilities” that the incidents alleged by Nationwide News occurred.

“In assessing Ms Norvill’s evidence, I am also mindful that people who make allegations relating to sexual assault or sexual harassment are often in a particularly vulnerable position and can experience unique and difficult challenges when giving evidence,” he said in his judgement. “The absence of corroboration is also a common feature of cases involving sexual harassment. Sexual harassment is often surreptitious and does not occur in public. Many of these considerations apply to Ms Norvill’s circumstances.”

While Wigney said he had taken these considerations into account, “there are a number of aspects to the evidence which raise significant issues about her credibility as a witness.”

Although actor Mark Leonard Winter supported Norvill’s account of Rush miming “groping” of Norvill during rehearsal of a scene in which she was pretending to be dead, evidence from actors Robyn Nevin, Helen Buday and the production’s director Neil Armfield contradicted those accounts.

In his summary, Wigney also referred to comments Norvill made about Rush in interviews promoting Sydney Theatre Company’s production. “Her evidence was inconsistent with statements she gave to journalists about what it was like working with Mr Rush, including that she loved his ebullience, and loved working with him,” Wigney said.

Wigney has awarded Rush aggravated damages of $850,000 for the hurt to his reputation, and said Rush is also entitled for lost economic opportunities, but is yet to name a figure, which could run into millions.

Wigney’s comments summarised his more than 200-page judgement. “Before you judge my judgment, as you are entitled to do, I ask that you read my judgment, so you can fully appreciate the reasons,” Wigney said.

Wigney’s comments have provoked a backlash on Twitter, with many in the theatre and arts industries coming out in support of Norvill, under the hashtag #IStandWithEJ.

Norvill, who had never intended the allegations to go public, told reporters outside the court, “I stand by everything I said at trial, I told the truth, I know what happened.” She also said she “would have been content to receive a simple apology and a promise to do better, without any of this.”

“There are no winners in this case,” Rush told reporters. “It’s been extremely distressing for all involved.”

Norvill isn’t the only actor to have made complaints about Rush’s behaviour. At the end of last year Australian actor Yael Stone – best-known for her recent work on the Netflix show Orange is the New Black – made a series of allegations in The New York Times and to the ABC about inappropriate behaviour by Rush during their time working together on The Diary of a Madman in New York in 2010 and 2011. Rush has denied the allegations, saying they were “incorrect and in some instances have been taken completely out of context.”