Australian newspaper appeals Geoffrey Rush defamation case

SYDNEY — A Sydney newspaper and journalist are appealing an Australian Federal Court decision that they defamed Oscar-winning actor Geoffrey Rush with accusations of inappropriate behavior toward an actress.

The Federal Court on Monday said that The Daily Telegraph and journalist Jonathan Moran had lodged an appeal arguing that Justice Michael Wigney's conduct "gave rise to an apprehension of bias."

Wigney ruled last month that publisher Nationwide News and Moran were reckless regarding the truth of their story when they reported the 67-year-old actor had been accused of inappropriate behavior in 2017.

Wigney found a newspaper poster and two articles contained several defamatory meanings and the news organization did not prove they were substantially true.

"This was ... a recklessly irresponsible piece of sensationalist journalism of the worst kind — the very worst kind," the judge said on April 11.

The newspaper and Moran largely relied on the evidence of actress Eryn Jean Norvill during a defamation trial last year.

She said Rush sexually harassed her during a Sydney Theatre Company production of King Lear in 2015 and 2016 when she played the daughter of his titular character.

Wigney found Norvill was at times "prone to exaggeration and embellishment."

He said he was not persuaded she was entirely credible and awarded Rush 850,000 Australian dollars ($594,000) in damages.

The Daily Telegraph in its notice of appeal alleged the judge's "apprehension of bias" was evident when he found Norvill was an unreliable witness lacking in credibility and awarded "excessive general damages."

Nationwide News and Moran want the Full Court of the Federal Court to set aside Wigney's decision or order a retrial before a different judge. No date has been set for the appeal hearing.

The lawyers return to court on Friday to consider special damages for Rush's lost earnings that could run to many millions of dollars.

Rush won the best actor Oscar in 1996 for his portrayal of pianist David Helfgott in "Shine" and was nominated for roles in "Shakespeare In Love," "'Quills" and "The King's Speech." He is also famed for his portrayal of Captain Barbossa in the "Pirates of the Caribbean" films.

He received Australia's highest civilian honor in 2014, the Companion of the Order of Australia, for service to the arts.

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