The Guardian 2024-04-05 10:06:28


Bruce Lehrmann discussed $200,000 payment for controversial Spotlight interview, defamation trial told

Justice Michael Lee adjourned the court after former Seven Spotlight producer Taylor Auerbach spent two days on the stand

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Bruce Lehrmann discussed payment of about $200,000 for his participation in an exclusive interview with Seven’s Spotlight program and was reimbursed by the network for money spent on cocaine and sex workers, which were euphemistically invoiced as “pre-production expenses”, a court has heard.

Former Seven producer Taylor Auerbach also told the federal court how he built a rapport with Lehrmann over several months in order to secure an exclusive interview, claiming that Lehrmann “appreciated the fact that I wasn’t sitting with the rest of the feminazis in the press pack”.

The dramatic evidence from Auerbach, some of which Justice Michael Lee described as “sordid”, came after the reopening of the defamation trial brought by Lehrmann against Network Ten and Lisa Wilkinson over an interview with Brittany Higgins broadcast on The Project in 2021.

Channel Seven has denied all allegations.

The case had closed and a ruling was due to be handed down on Thursday, before Auerbach’s 11th-hour allegations prompted it to be reopened.

Auerbach was asked about an invoice, produced to the court on Friday by the Seven Network, from 14 January 2023 from Lehrmann for a hire car and a George Street bar. Another item was a $750 charge for “pre-production expenses”.

Auerbach alleged that line item referred to “Mr Lehrmann’s expenditure on cocaine and prostitutes”.

“He indicated to me he needed to replenish his bank account after the bender,” Auerbach claimed.

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Matthew Richardson SC, for Lehrmann, argued in closing submissions that it was implausible “that the two nights of prostitutes and illicit drugs were covered by a $750 entry for pre-production expenses”.

“That was two nights with him and Mr Auerbach with the drugs and the prostitutes – even the least worldly person in this room, which regrettably is probably me, Your Honour, [would know] that that is a stretch.”

Although Lee clarified that this was the only expense that Seven had been able to find and submit to the court.

This expense was separate to the $10,000 charge to the Seven credit card made by Auerbach in November 2022 for a Thai massage parlour.

“Mr Auerbach did spend in excess of $10,000 on Mr Lehrmann on Seven’s corporate credit card to pay for prostitutes and drugs. And Mr Lehrmann benefited from those purchases,” Matt Collins KC , for Ten, said in his closing statement.

Collins said Auerbach was to be believed when he said the credit card charge was for Lehrmann’s benefit and was all part of an attempt to get him to sign on the dotted line for an interview.

“And somehow, in the perverse universe in which this program was apparently operating, Mr Auerbach was not terminated for spending more than $10,000 on the company credit card on illicit activities in connection with getting the story of the year,” Collins said.

Lee, who appeared frustrated at several points by the relevance of the fresh evidence, quizzed Collins about why Seven allegedly paying for sex workers and drugs was relevant to his findings in the defamation case.

“I’m just concerned how far we’re going down into what is increasingly looking like a rabbit hole,” he said.

Lee said that Auerbach’s aim in giving evidence to the court was “to do as much damage to his former employer as possible”, commenting that it was “rare to see as much animus” as was displayed in the video of Auerbach destroying his former colleague Steve Jackson’s golf clubs, which was played to the court on Thursday.

Lee said that just because Auerbach was motivated by animus did not mean he wasn’t telling the truth, but cautioned counsel: “Don’t put him up as some noble, public-interested individual.”

Auerbach also alleged on Friday that he had discussions with Lehrmann’s media adviser John Macgowan about how much the former Liberal staffer might expect to be paid for an interview.

Macgowan knew someone who had been paid $150,000 for an interview with Seven and raised this figure with Auerbach, the court heard. The text messages released by the court revealed the person to be Vikki Campion, who is now married to Barnaby Joyce.

“So he said, ‘I know what she got, so we’ll start from there’, and we sort of talked about vaguely $200,000,” Auerbach said.

The former Spotlight producer claimed the two men discussed how they might pay Lehrmann indirectly through a trust, rather than giving Lehrmann the funds directly.

While it was not illegal, Seven has always insisted Lehrmann was not paid and it only helped with accommodation during filming, and Lehrmann only declared the $104,000 in rental accommodation he was paid.

Ten alleges that Lehrmann and Seven have not been honest about the financial benefits received by the interviewee.

Key to the evidence put forward by Auerbach was his claim that Lehrmann shared confidential documents with Seven ahead of his Spotlight interview, including airdropping documents to Auerbach’s phone during a golf trip to Tasmania, paid for by Seven.

In Ten’s submission they allege that Lehrmann breached his Harman undertaking by airdropping documents and providing messages from the criminal trial.

The alleged supply of any documents to Seven is relevant to the defamation case because Seven, Lehrmann and Lehrmann’s counsel have all denied such material passed between them.

If proven, the evidence could go both to Lehrmann’s credibility and raise questions as to whether he abused the court process, which may affect what damages he is awarded should his claim be successful.

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Claims of sex, drugs and credit cards: five key takeaways from Taylor Auerbach’s evidence at the Bruce Lehrmann defamation trial

High-profile defamation case reopened on Thursday with former Spotlight producer for Channel Seven giving evidence

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The Bruce Lehrmann defamation case reopened on Thursday, with television producer Taylor Auerbach giving evidence.

Here are the key takeaways from his blockbuster afternoon in the witness box .

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A rape allegation and a media storm: a timeline of how the Bruce Lehrmann defamation case unfolded

Here’s what has happened so far in the former Liberal staffer’s case against Network Ten and Lisa Wilkinson

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In 2021, the Liberal staffer Brittany Higgins made an explosive allegation, claiming she had been raped two years earlier on a minister’s couch in Parliament House.

She made the claim in an interview with news.com.au and a television interview which was aired by Network Ten’s The Project on 15 February.

The media outlets did not name the alleged rapist, but Higgins’ colleague Bruce Lehrmann later claimed he was identifiable and sued news.com.au, Network Ten and its presenter Lisa Wilkinson for defamation.

Lehrmann maintains his innocence, and at his criminal trial in 2022 pleaded not guilty to one charge of sexual intercourse without consent, denying that any sexual activity had occurred.

After his criminal trial was aborted in December 2022, prosecutors dropped charges against Lehrmann for the alleged rape of Higgins, saying a retrial would pose an “unacceptable risk” to her health. Lehrmann then pursued Ten and Wilkinson in the courts, resulting in a five-week defamation trial which ran until just before Christmas.

Here’s how the story has played out so far.

2019

Friday 22 March

  • Liberal staffers Bruce Lehrmann and Brittany Higgins drink at The Dock bar in Canberra with colleagues, where Higgins consumes multiple drinks. At the time, Lehrmann and Higgins worked for the then defence minister, Senator Linda Reynolds.

Video source: Federal Court of Australia

  • Lehrmann, Higgins and two other staffers kick on to another venue, the nightclub 88mph.

Saturday 23 March

  • Lehrmann and Higgins share an Uber to Parliament House, arriving about 1.40am. Lehrmann tells security he has been requested by the minister to pick up work documents.

Video source: Federal Court of Australia

  • Security guards escort the pair to Reynolds’ ministerial suite. Higgins can be seen in security footage carrying her high heels after struggling to put them on. There is no security camera footage of what happened inside the suite.

  • Higgins later alleges that Lehrmann raped her in the ministerial suite. Lehrmann has vehemently denied the allegation.

  • About 40 minutes later Lehrmann leaves parliament alone.

  • Eight hours later, at about 10am, security footage shows Higgins leaving parliament wearing a jacket she found in the suite.

Video source: Federal Court of Australia

Tuesday 26 March

  • The Department of Parliamentary Services provides a report to Reynolds’ chief of staff, Fiona Brown, about a “security breach” involving staff entering the office after hours and inebriated.

  • Higgins and Lehrmann are called into separate meetings with Brown and interviewed about the security breach. Lehrmann leaves the office shortly afterwards.

Friday 5 April

  • Lehrmann’s employment in Reynolds’ office is terminated over the security breach.

Monday 8 April

  • Higgins meets with Australian federal police (AFP) at Belconnen police station and says she was raped, but drops the complaint a week later.

2021

Wednesday 27 January

  • Higgins is working as an adviser for Senator Michaelia Cash when she and her partner, David Sharaz, meet with The Project journalist Lisa Wilkinson and producer Angus Llewellyn in Sydney.

Friday 29 January

  • Higgins resigns from her adviser position in Cash’s office.

Tuesday 2 February

  • Higgins records an interview with Wilkinson for The Project in which she alleges she was raped on a couch in the minister’s office.

Thursday 4 February

  • Higgins contacts the AFP to reopen her police complaint.

Monday 15 February

  • Higgins’ interviews with news.com.au’s Samantha Maiden and Ten’s Wilkinson are published by news.com.au in the morning and aired by The Project that evening.

Monday 19 April

  • Lehrmann is interviewed by police.

Wednesday 26 May

  • Higgins meets with the AFP and hands over her phone for extraction after the interview.

Thursday 16 September

  • Lehrmann pleads not guilty after being charged with sexual intercourse without consent.

2022

Tuesday 21 June

  • Lehrmann’s trial for the alleged rape of Higgins is delayed after Wilkinson’s Logies speech in which she thanked Higgins. Later the defamation trial hears the speech was approved by Ten’s legal team.

Tuesday 4 October

  • Lehrmann’s criminal trial begins in Canberra before the ACT Chief Justice Lucy McCallum. Higgins’ evidence is delayed after she is unavailable to attend court.

Wednesday 19 October

  • Jury begins deliberations after final instructions, but asks for more time.

Thursday 27 October

  • The chief justice dismisses the jury after it is discovered one juror obtained information outside the evidence presented in court.

Friday 2 December

  • The ACT prosecutor Shane Drumgold announces the case has been dropped, after receiving medical advice regarding Higgins.

2023

Tuesday 7 February

  • Lehrmann starts legal action against Network Ten and news.com.au in the federal court.

Wednesday 5 April

  • Lehrmann files defamation proceedings against the Australian Broadcasting Corporation over its broadcast of an address to the National Press Club by Higgins and Grace Tame. He now has three defamation cases running against the media.

Tuesday 30 May

  • Lehrmann discontinues defamation proceedings against News Corp’s news.com.au after it pays $295,000 towards his legal fees as part of a settlement.

Sunday 4 June

  • Lehrmann appears on Seven’s Spotlight program for an exclusive, paid interview and says the alleged assault “simply didn’t happen”.

Tuesday 21 November

  • The ABC settles with Lehrmann, paying $150,000 towards his legal fees the day before the trial starts.

Wednesday 22 November

  • The defamation trial against Ten and Wilkinson begins in Sydney’s federal court before Justice Michael Lee. Ten and Wilkinson rely on the defences of truth and qualified privilege. They argue the imputation that Lehrmann raped Higgins is substantially true and because defamation proceedings are civil matters, rather than criminal, the standard of proof is different. Under the qualified privilege defence, Ten and Wilkinson must prove the program was in the public interest and they acted reasonably.

  • In the interests of open justice, Lee makes the trial available to the public on the court’s YouTube channel.

  • Lehrmann is the first witness and he spends five days in the witness box.

Tuesday 28 November

  • Higgins begins her evidence, spending four full days in the witness box.

Tuesday 5 December

  • Documents released by the court suggest Lehrmann’s deal with Channel Seven for exclusive interviews was worth $104,000.

Tuesday 19 December

  • The forensic lip-reader Tim Reedy flies in from the UK and tells the court he believes CCTV footage from The Dock in Canberra showed Higgins being “plied with alcohol”. His expert report is accepted into evidence despite objections raised by Lehrmann’s barrister Steve Whybrow.

Thursday 21 December

  • In closing submissions Ten’s legal team say Lehrmann was “revealed to be a fundamentally dishonest man who was prepared to say or do anything he perceived to advance his interests”.

  • Wilkinson’s team say the presenter “had no decision-making power as to the final content of the broadcast”.

Friday 22 December

  • On the last day of the trial, Lehrmann’s lawyers say Higgins told “complete falsehoods” and her allegations were part of a “political hit job” fuelled by her partner, Sharaz.

  • Lee thanks the parties for their exemplary conduct in what could have been “an extraordinarily difficult case to control and manage in the courtroom given its controversy”.

  • Lee retires to consider more than 15,000 pages of transcript and 1,000 separate exhibits, including hours of CCTV footage as well as audio and video recordings.

2024

Friday 16 February

  • Court documents reveal Wilkinson blamed the network for failing to stop the bad press and that she was afraid she would lose her harbourside mansion if Ten didn’t pay her legal costs.

Friday 1 March

  • Lehrmann, Ten and Wilkinson make final submissions after additional evidence was heard in a cross-claim brought by Wilkinson against Ten for her legal fees. The former presenter on The Project won the case the previous month.

Sunday 31 March

  • In a surprise move late on Easter Sunday, Network Ten file an interlocutory application asking the federal court to reopen its defence based on “fresh evidence”.

Tuesday 2 April

  • In an urgent hearing, Lee allows Channel Ten to present additional evidence in defence of the defamation case brought by Bruce Lehrmann. His judgment – due to be handed down on Thursday 4 April – is delayed.

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Bruce Lehrmann defamation trial: Channel Seven offered Taylor Auerbach promotion after rebuking him for charging Thai massages to corporate card, court told

On his first day of evidence former Spotlight producer claims Lehrmann had cocaine and Googled sex workers on night out

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Taylor Auerbach was offered a pay rise and a promotion from Channel Seven after the TV producer admitted to putting $10,000 on a corporate credit card to pay for Thai massages for Bruce Lehrmann, the federal court has heard.

The former Spotlight producer said he was mortified when he woke up the next day and realised he had charged the company for the services at his Elizabeth Bay apartment and he sent his resignation by email in November 2022.

The sensational evidence came on the first day of the re-opening of the defamation trial after Network Ten won the right to present fresh evidence.

The fresh evidence, in the form of affidavits from Auerbach alleging Lehrmann gave Seven confidential documents from his criminal trial, has delayed the judgment Justice Michael Lee was scheduled to hand down on Thursday.

If proven, the evidence could go both to Lehrmann’s credibility and raise questions as to whether he abused the court process, which may affect the quantum of any damages he is awarded should his claim be successful.

Lee, possibly as early as next week, will rule on whether Lehrmann, a former Liberal staffer, was defamed by Lisa Wilkinson and Ten when The Project broadcast an interview with Brittany Higgins in 2021 in which she alleged she had been raped in Parliament House.

On Thursday afternoon the court heard Auerbach did not end up resigning but stayed with the program where he was offered more money and a promotion.

He agreed that in the resignation letter he apologised for spending the money on the corporate credit card which had “nothing to do with work” but he now insists that the evening was to do with work.

Auerbach told the court that on a different occasion Lehrmann issued invoices to Seven to reimburse him for money he spent on illegal drugs and sex workers.

Under cross-examination Auerbach said that Lehrmann had a bag of cocaine and sex workers at the Meriton hotel in the city but the two men devised a plan to issue an invoice for “per diems” or “reasonable expenses while on work trips” which Auerbach claimed Seven agreed to pay.

“I recall seeing the invoice,” Auerbach said.

Lehrmann’s barrister, Matthew Richardson SC, suggested that there were “no per diems paid” and “it didn’t happen”.

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“It did,” Auerbach said.

Auerbach said his former boss, executive producer Mark Llewellyn, “gave verbal approval” for the invoices to be paid.

“Mr Lehrmann had, over dinner, purchased a bag of cocaine while we were dining at Franca, and when we got upstairs to the room, he pulled that out and started to put it on a plate and then started talking to me about a prospective Spotlight story and his desire to order prostitutes to the Meriton that night and began Googling of series of websites to try and make that happen,” Auerbach said.

The incidents are alleged to have happened when Auerbach was assigned as a “babysitter” or “minder” for Lehrmann who the network was trying to get across the line for an exclusive interview.

On one of the nights of heavy drinking Auerbach told the court that Lehrmann agreed to do an interview but insisted he would not discuss the night of the alleged rape.

“I was taken aback,” Auerbach said. “It jumped out at me as quite concerning.”

Auerbach denied a suggestion by Richardson that he had a drinking problem at the time he was courting Lehrmann for the interview.

Richardson put it to him that he had been consuming “140 standard drinks a week or 30 standard drinks a day at the time”.

“I want to suggest to you Mr Auerbach that your recollection of anything that happened in November or December 2022 is suspect.”

Auerbach: “I disagree.”

Auerbach did agree he had been “in part” backgrounding journalists about his time at Seven and that he “hated” his former colleague Steve Jackson. Jackson’s appointment as a media adviser to the NSW Police was cancelled after the stories appeared last month.

Richardson: “I want to suggest you are willing to say anything, no matter how false, to damage people that are employed by Channel Seven or connected with Channel Seven?”

Auerbach denied this.

“For instance, you particularly hate Steve Jackson, your colleague from Seven who worked on the Lehrmann story, don’t you?”

Auerbach: “Yes.”

He confirmed he was upset that his name was not on Spotlight’s Walkley award entry for the Lehrmann story and that he had complained to Seven and to the Walkleys about being left out.

However, Auerbach insisted he was not proud of the Lehrmann story.

He was also cross-examined about sending naked photographs of a woman to journalists in recent weeks.

He admitted to sending the photos, disagreed that the woman was “vulnerable”, and said he did not know it was a criminal act to send photographs of that nature without her consent.

Lehrmann’s legal team played the court a video Auerbach had posted on social media in which he destroyed Jackson’s golf clubs.

Lee interjected: “The shorter the iron, the more difficult it is.”

Auerbach said the video was a parody.

Auerbach’s solicitor Rebekah Giles told the court her client had left Seven after sustaining a psychiatric injury at the hands of Llewellyn and Jackson.

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‘Sordid’ evidence, a ‘perverse universe’: five key takeaways from the final day of the Bruce Lehrmann defamation trial

Former Seven producer Taylor Auerbach concludes evidence on Friday after the trial was dramatically reopened this week

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The Bruce Lehrmann defamation case has concluded after dramatic testimony from the former Seven producer Taylor Auerbach.

Here are the key takeaways from the final day of evidence.

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East coast weather: flood warnings for Queensland and NSW as BoM forecasts heavy rainfall

Drivers have been urged to reconsiders their travel plans ahead of a forecast deluge

  • BoM weather radar: track the path of the storms and latest updates and warnings for NSW and Queensland
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Heavy rainfall will drench parts of Queensland and New South Wales this weekend, with motorists urged to stay off roads.

Laura Boekel, senior meteorologist at the Bureau of Meteorology, said a trough is affecting both Queensland and New South Wales, producing a significant amount of rainfall across the two states.

“The atmosphere has a lot of moisture in it at the moment and the result of that is we’re seeing these storms producing quite a lot of rainfall,” she said.

Major flooding was affecting parts of Sydney on Friday afternoon, with drivers warned to avoid non-essential travel.

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A severe weather warning is in place along the NSW coast from Morisset, south of Newcastle in the Hunter, to Bega on the South Coast and extending west to the Central and Southern Tablelands past Oberon and Goulburn.

Severe thunderstorms are possible from the Queensland border south to Wollongong and west to Griffith and Cobar.

Sydney faced its highest daily rainfall in two years, recording 111mm of rain in 24 hours and was on track to surpass its average total rainfall for April before the weekend.

The city is forecast to experience falls of between 10mm and 50mm on Saturday, according to the BoM, with rain easing on Sunday.

Warragamba Dam – Sydney’s main reservoir – was 96.3% full and likely to spill on Monday, the chief executive of Water NSW, Andrew George, warned.

“We require about 90mm of rain to fill Warragamba Dam … we’re expecting 100mm to 150mm,” he said.

An inland low and coastal trough joining forces over NSW are driving the deluge.

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The ongoing intense downpours would drive “dangerous and life-threatening flash flooding” from Friday evening, the SES warned.

Intense rainfall will continue over the weekend in parts of south and south-east Queensland, Boekel said.

“For parts of the southern and southeastern interior, widespread showers and thunderstorms will continue today and into tomorrow,” she said.

“Localised heavy falls could occur over the weekend and the area where we’re likely to see the most risk is the area south of Brisbane [on] Logan, Gold Coast and the Scenic Rim areas.”

A major flood warning is current for Charleville’s Warrego River in the state’s south west. River levels are expected to rise above moderate levels on Friday evening after several days of heavy thunderstorms.

A flood watch alert is in place for the Macintyre, Weir, Moonie and Balonne rivers.

Rainfall is expected to ease later in the weekend and next week, Boekel said.

Queensland police deputy commissioner, Shane Chelepy, asked motorists to reconsider their need to travel this weekend.

“We’ve seen some significant accidents on our roads today in the wet weather,” Chelepy said. “Please, if it’s flooded, don’t drive in it.”

Chelepy said emergency services were expecting a peak of 6.7 metres at Charleville.

He said levee gates, with a capacity of about 7.9m would be put in place on Friday afternoon.

“[This] will protect the town and we’re not expecting the flood waters to exceed that but … the disaster management groups very active in that area,” he said.

The SES has received 59 calls for assistance across the state, according to acting commissioner at the Queensland Fire and Emergency Service, Brian Cox.

“What we’re asking people to do is to remain vigilant. With the current weather conditions, flash flooding can occur in hours, not days,” Cox said.

“The next 24 or 48 hours is going to be important … There will be short bursts of water in already water affected areas that can impact you, your family and your friends.”

In NSW, the SES undertook seven flood rescues overnight and responded to more than 550 incidents across the state in the past 24 hours.

Nine schools across NSW were shut down and 92 flights were cancelled or delayed at Sydney Airport.

Train services face major delays because of damaged equipment at Redfern station in inner Sydney.

Power was also cut to a major city-centre court complex after the rain affected local electricity infrastructure.

Additional reporting by AAP

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Chequebook journalism is nothing new, but allegations in court about Spotlight’s practices have left insiders ‘gobsmacked’

Tory Shepherd

Claims in Bruce Lehrmann defamation case raise questions of media ethics. Plus: the IPA goes to war with fact-checkers

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Claims made by a former Channel Seven producer in a federal court defamation case this week that the network reimbursed Bruce Lehrmann for illicit drugs and sex workers are “astonishing” and “sleazy” if true, journalists and media ethics experts say.

TV producer Taylor Auerbach has alleged that other expenses incurred while trying to secure an interview with Lehrmann for Spotlight included a giant steak, Thai massages, accommodation and a round of golf – on top of an estimated $104,000 in rent.

Outside court, Seven has denied that it condoned or authorised the alleged payments to Lehrmann referred to in Auerbach’s affidavit before he gave evidence on Thursday. It has previously acknowledged that it paid his rent for a year.

After Auerbach’s testimony, Seven released a statement, referred to in court on Friday, saying: “Seven did not reimburse Bruce Lehrmann for expenditure that has allegedly been used to pay for illegal drugs or prostitutes, and has never done so. Seven notes the matter remains before the courts … As previously stated, Seven did not condone or authorise the alleged payments to Mr Lehrmann referred to in the affidavits recently made public. The person involved admitted to the misuse of a Seven corporate card and all unauthorised expenses were immediately reimbursed. Seven has acted appropriately at all times.”

The television episode that eventuated, Trial and Error, had attracted 600,000 viewers and was shortlisted for a Walkley award – the entry criteria include declaring any payments, benefits or gifts given in exchange for access (the nomination was eventually revoked).

Some outlets have used chequebook journalism for decades, but the allegations made by Auerbach have astounded journalists and the public.

Andrew Dodd, the director of the University of Melbourne’s Centre for Advancing Journalism, said using rent and gifts instead of cash was an “adaptation” of chequebook journalism.

“It looks and feels sleazy … the [alleged] behaviour is gobsmacking.”

If the allegations were true, Seven needed to turn the spotlight on itself, Dodd said.

Denis Muller, a senior research fellow at the centre, speaking generally, said media organisations needed to ask themselves what the motive was in cases where they considered paying, and what the motive of the recipient was.

“Does the fact that money’s changed hands affect the credibility of the material?” he said. “Do you disclose to your audience that you’ve received the information you’re giving them as a result of payment?”

Muller said it was “astonishing” that the types of transactions alleged by Auerbach “could play any part at all in a relationship between a media organisation and a source”.

Both Muller and Dodd said the allegations could further erode public trust in journalism.

The veteran ABC journalist Quentin Dempster said that although chequebook journalism had been around for years, it was “highly problematic”.

“The ethical point to be made is that any arrangement for exclusivity in return for any money should be clearly, transparently disclosed to the audience so that they can make an assessment of the credibility of the information they’re about to receive,” he said.

Biased facts?

Amid concerns about surging misinformation and disinformation online, the Institute of Public Affairs has once again gone to war with fact-checking units.

On 1 April, the IPA released a report into AAP FactCheck, RMIT FactLab and RMIT ABC Fact Check, claiming they were guilty of left-wing bias.

The IPA claimed that 94% of checks related to the pandemic targeted critics of the official Covid response; that 81% of checks related to climate change and energy policy “targeted critics” of those policies; and that 65% of checks of political figures were “favourable to left-of-centre politicians” – by which it meant Labor, the Greens, the teals and other “progressive independents”.

The report found that “the only rational explanation” for those figures was “ideological bias”, but did not interrogate whether the checks themselves were accurate.

The report, which was embraced by Sky News and the Murdoch press, used those statistics to argue against the government’s planned misinformation laws.

Andrea Carson, a political communication professor at La Trobe University, wrote in the Conversation in March that “the politicisation of fact-checking – a longstanding feature of the sector in the US” – had reached Australia. And the new ABC News Verify – which will replace the RMIT ABC Fact Check in June – was likely to be targeted, she said.

“Our study’s findings suggest that accusations of left-wing bias levelled at the ABC, particularly by right-wing partisans, may intersect with its fact-checking role with RMIT, and foreshadows criticisms that its new unit might encounter,” she wrote.

Meanwhile, AAP is set to partner with Google on a new fact-checking body to tackle misinformation and disinformation. Weekly Beast confidently predicts it will get its turn in an IPA report.

Dick’s dreary prank

Blame the public holiday perhaps, but April Fools’ Day pranks barely got a foothold in the media this year.

Not like on 1 April 1978, when fledgling billionaire entrepreneur Dick Smith towed a barge covered in a sheet and shaving cream into Sydney Harbour and duped people into thinking he’d towed it there from Antarctica. He would carve up the “Dickenberg One” into “Dicksicles” to go into drinks, he said, before the rain melted the hoax away.

His trick this year was a bit more dreary: he called into Ben Fordham Live with an unbelievable “scoop”. ABC chair Kim Williams asked him to be the unpaid director of news and current affairs for a day, he said. The backstory is that the ABC had to correct a fact-check on Smith’s renewable energy claims. How droll.

These days it’s the “prankvertising” by corporations that is the main source of hoaxes on April Fools’ Day. Think Subway launching a fairy bread sub, Who Gives A Crap saying they’re sending toilet paper to Uranus, and Spring Gully announcing sweet mustard pickle lamingtons.

Singo sings praises of BRS

On to another rich Australian injecting himself into the news. The ad man John Singleton raised eyebrows when he took out a full-page ad in The Australian to pay tribute to Ben Roberts-Smith. That’s Roberts-Smith, who is currently appealing his failed defamation action over media reports he claims labelled him a war criminal and that was bankrolled by Seven West Media chairman Kerry Stokes.

Under a headline that read “An apology to Ben Roberts-Smith. From a Coward”, Singleton wrote that he dodged the Vietnam draft. He went on to accuse the media of “gossip” and to thank Roberts-Smith for the killing of Afghan soldiers.

“He killed as soldiers do, but is now guilty of doing his job whilst risking his life for us,” he wrote.

Industry leaders – according to the advertising, marketing and media company B&T – said it was an “awful stain” on the industry, reflective of a “boys’ club” culture, and that his use of the phrase “yellow peril” had racist undertones.

The ad stated: “Now it’s yellow peril time again. Bring in China. We follow blindly against China. We buy anything from them and they don’t buy anything from us. Did it hurt them? No.

“But us? Cost us plenty. It killed our biggest export earners: iron ore, gas, wine, agriculture. Madness.”

The Weekly Beast has approached Singleton for comment.

Mind the gap

A report in The Australian on “provocative” research from a “leading Indigenous organisation” claimed universities were “fast-tracking” Aboriginal academics.

The research warns that well-intentioned diversity and inclusion targets “can come at a cost’’, education reporter Natasha Bita wrote.

That leading organisation is Close the Gap Research, which started in November last year, and which the former Labor MP Gary Johns said was formed “out of the original group that fought the [voice] referendum”.

Remember Johns?

Johns was secretary of Recognise a Better Way, the no campaign group set up by Warren Mundine.

Last year the Indigenous Australians minister, Linda Burney, called for the no campaign to sack Johns after he proposed a “very, very heavy cultural intervention” for Aboriginal children, and said “if you don’t get a kid away from those communities early, they will have a shocking life”.

Johns has previously suggested First Nations people take blood tests in order to access welfare payments, and has said some people in remote communities live in a “stupor” and that they should “learn English”.

The Weekly Beast asked Bita if she was aware of the these previous comments from Johns, the chair of the organisation, but hadn’t heard back by the time of publication.

China’s advice for Australian journos

In yet another shock accusation about media tactics, China has accused the Australian press of trying to spread western democratic values.

Communist party mouthpiece the Global Times says the media is stirring up trouble and threatening regional peace by emphasising democracy and freedom.

Prompted by a 60 Minutes report on China’s aggression in Fiji, the Global Times published a piece referring to various anonymous sources attacking the Australian media for relying on information from anonymous sources.

“Efforts by some Australian media sources to ‘spread’ Western democratic values and increase their external propaganda in Fiji are increasing, the Global Times learned from some sources in Fiji, who are direct witnesses to the Australian media’s sneaky manoeuvres to sow discord between Fiji and China,” the Times reported, adding that analysts were warning media outlets “to return to the right track of playing a more positive role in promoting cooperation and regional peace than stirring up trouble”.

Australian media “emphasising the shared values of ‘democracy and freedom’” was “aimed at creating doubts about or distancing from China’s political system and ideology”.

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Chequebook journalism is nothing new, but allegations in court about Spotlight’s practices have left insiders ‘gobsmacked’

Tory Shepherd

Claims in Bruce Lehrmann defamation case raise questions of media ethics. Plus: the IPA goes to war with fact-checkers

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Claims made by a former Channel Seven producer in a federal court defamation case this week that the network reimbursed Bruce Lehrmann for illicit drugs and sex workers are “astonishing” and “sleazy” if true, journalists and media ethics experts say.

TV producer Taylor Auerbach has alleged that other expenses incurred while trying to secure an interview with Lehrmann for Spotlight included a giant steak, Thai massages, accommodation and a round of golf – on top of an estimated $104,000 in rent.

Outside court, Seven has denied that it condoned or authorised the alleged payments to Lehrmann referred to in Auerbach’s affidavit before he gave evidence on Thursday. It has previously acknowledged that it paid his rent for a year.

After Auerbach’s testimony, Seven released a statement, referred to in court on Friday, saying: “Seven did not reimburse Bruce Lehrmann for expenditure that has allegedly been used to pay for illegal drugs or prostitutes, and has never done so. Seven notes the matter remains before the courts … As previously stated, Seven did not condone or authorise the alleged payments to Mr Lehrmann referred to in the affidavits recently made public. The person involved admitted to the misuse of a Seven corporate card and all unauthorised expenses were immediately reimbursed. Seven has acted appropriately at all times.”

The television episode that eventuated, Trial and Error, had attracted 600,000 viewers and was shortlisted for a Walkley award – the entry criteria include declaring any payments, benefits or gifts given in exchange for access (the nomination was eventually revoked).

Some outlets have used chequebook journalism for decades, but the allegations made by Auerbach have astounded journalists and the public.

Andrew Dodd, the director of the University of Melbourne’s Centre for Advancing Journalism, said using rent and gifts instead of cash was an “adaptation” of chequebook journalism.

“It looks and feels sleazy … the [alleged] behaviour is gobsmacking.”

If the allegations were true, Seven needed to turn the spotlight on itself, Dodd said.

Denis Muller, a senior research fellow at the centre, speaking generally, said media organisations needed to ask themselves what the motive was in cases where they considered paying, and what the motive of the recipient was.

“Does the fact that money’s changed hands affect the credibility of the material?” he said. “Do you disclose to your audience that you’ve received the information you’re giving them as a result of payment?”

Muller said it was “astonishing” that the types of transactions alleged by Auerbach “could play any part at all in a relationship between a media organisation and a source”.

Both Muller and Dodd said the allegations could further erode public trust in journalism.

The veteran ABC journalist Quentin Dempster said that although chequebook journalism had been around for years, it was “highly problematic”.

“The ethical point to be made is that any arrangement for exclusivity in return for any money should be clearly, transparently disclosed to the audience so that they can make an assessment of the credibility of the information they’re about to receive,” he said.

Biased facts?

Amid concerns about surging misinformation and disinformation online, the Institute of Public Affairs has once again gone to war with fact-checking units.

On 1 April, the IPA released a report into AAP FactCheck, RMIT FactLab and RMIT ABC Fact Check, claiming they were guilty of left-wing bias.

The IPA claimed that 94% of checks related to the pandemic targeted critics of the official Covid response; that 81% of checks related to climate change and energy policy “targeted critics” of those policies; and that 65% of checks of political figures were “favourable to left-of-centre politicians” – by which it meant Labor, the Greens, the teals and other “progressive independents”.

The report found that “the only rational explanation” for those figures was “ideological bias”, but did not interrogate whether the checks themselves were accurate.

The report, which was embraced by Sky News and the Murdoch press, used those statistics to argue against the government’s planned misinformation laws.

Andrea Carson, a political communication professor at La Trobe University, wrote in the Conversation in March that “the politicisation of fact-checking – a longstanding feature of the sector in the US” – had reached Australia. And the new ABC News Verify – which will replace the RMIT ABC Fact Check in June – was likely to be targeted, she said.

“Our study’s findings suggest that accusations of left-wing bias levelled at the ABC, particularly by right-wing partisans, may intersect with its fact-checking role with RMIT, and foreshadows criticisms that its new unit might encounter,” she wrote.

Meanwhile, AAP is set to partner with Google on a new fact-checking body to tackle misinformation and disinformation. Weekly Beast confidently predicts it will get its turn in an IPA report.

Dick’s dreary prank

Blame the public holiday perhaps, but April Fools’ Day pranks barely got a foothold in the media this year.

Not like on 1 April 1978, when fledgling billionaire entrepreneur Dick Smith towed a barge covered in a sheet and shaving cream into Sydney Harbour and duped people into thinking he’d towed it there from Antarctica. He would carve up the “Dickenberg One” into “Dicksicles” to go into drinks, he said, before the rain melted the hoax away.

His trick this year was a bit more dreary: he called into Ben Fordham Live with an unbelievable “scoop”. ABC chair Kim Williams asked him to be the unpaid director of news and current affairs for a day, he said. The backstory is that the ABC had to correct a fact-check on Smith’s renewable energy claims. How droll.

These days it’s the “prankvertising” by corporations that is the main source of hoaxes on April Fools’ Day. Think Subway launching a fairy bread sub, Who Gives A Crap saying they’re sending toilet paper to Uranus, and Spring Gully announcing sweet mustard pickle lamingtons.

Singo sings praises of BRS

On to another rich Australian injecting himself into the news. The ad man John Singleton raised eyebrows when he took out a full-page ad in The Australian to pay tribute to Ben Roberts-Smith. That’s Roberts-Smith, who is currently appealing his failed defamation action over media reports he claims labelled him a war criminal and that was bankrolled by Seven West Media chairman Kerry Stokes.

Under a headline that read “An apology to Ben Roberts-Smith. From a Coward”, Singleton wrote that he dodged the Vietnam draft. He went on to accuse the media of “gossip” and to thank Roberts-Smith for the killing of Afghan soldiers.

“He killed as soldiers do, but is now guilty of doing his job whilst risking his life for us,” he wrote.

Industry leaders – according to the advertising, marketing and media company B&T – said it was an “awful stain” on the industry, reflective of a “boys’ club” culture, and that his use of the phrase “yellow peril” had racist undertones.

The ad stated: “Now it’s yellow peril time again. Bring in China. We follow blindly against China. We buy anything from them and they don’t buy anything from us. Did it hurt them? No.

“But us? Cost us plenty. It killed our biggest export earners: iron ore, gas, wine, agriculture. Madness.”

The Weekly Beast has approached Singleton for comment.

Mind the gap

A report in The Australian on “provocative” research from a “leading Indigenous organisation” claimed universities were “fast-tracking” Aboriginal academics.

The research warns that well-intentioned diversity and inclusion targets “can come at a cost’’, education reporter Natasha Bita wrote.

That leading organisation is Close the Gap Research, which started in November last year, and which the former Labor MP Gary Johns said was formed “out of the original group that fought the [voice] referendum”.

Remember Johns?

Johns was secretary of Recognise a Better Way, the no campaign group set up by Warren Mundine.

Last year the Indigenous Australians minister, Linda Burney, called for the no campaign to sack Johns after he proposed a “very, very heavy cultural intervention” for Aboriginal children, and said “if you don’t get a kid away from those communities early, they will have a shocking life”.

Johns has previously suggested First Nations people take blood tests in order to access welfare payments, and has said some people in remote communities live in a “stupor” and that they should “learn English”.

The Weekly Beast asked Bita if she was aware of the these previous comments from Johns, the chair of the organisation, but hadn’t heard back by the time of publication.

China’s advice for Australian journos

In yet another shock accusation about media tactics, China has accused the Australian press of trying to spread western democratic values.

Communist party mouthpiece the Global Times says the media is stirring up trouble and threatening regional peace by emphasising democracy and freedom.

Prompted by a 60 Minutes report on China’s aggression in Fiji, the Global Times published a piece referring to various anonymous sources attacking the Australian media for relying on information from anonymous sources.

“Efforts by some Australian media sources to ‘spread’ Western democratic values and increase their external propaganda in Fiji are increasing, the Global Times learned from some sources in Fiji, who are direct witnesses to the Australian media’s sneaky manoeuvres to sow discord between Fiji and China,” the Times reported, adding that analysts were warning media outlets “to return to the right track of playing a more positive role in promoting cooperation and regional peace than stirring up trouble”.

Australian media “emphasising the shared values of ‘democracy and freedom’” was “aimed at creating doubts about or distancing from China’s political system and ideology”.

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ACT anti-corruption watchdog examining Walter Sofronoff’s contact with media during Lehrmann trial

Integrity commission cites ‘exceptional circumstances’ to make announcement, which involves ‘no adverse findings of any kind’

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The ACT’s anti-corruption watchdog has said it is “assessing corruption allegations” against Walter Sofronoff over his dealings with the media while he led an inquiry into the Bruce Lehrmann trial.

In a rare public acknowledgment, the ACT Integrity Commission confirmed on Friday it was looking at Sofronoff’s extensive communications with the media during the inquiry, which were revealed in a recent supreme court litigation.

“The commission’s general policy is to neither confirm nor deny the referral or investigation of corruption allegations unless the circumstances are exceptional,” the letter said.

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“Here, the issues are especially important, their subject matter has already been widely publicised and the need for the integrity commission to assess and, if necessary, investigate them is apparent.”

Sofronoff, a former Queensland court of appeal judge, was tasked with leading an ACT inquiry examining whether the investigation and Lehrmann’s trial were subject to political influence.

Sofronoff’s July 2023 report made “several serious findings of misconduct” against the then ACT director of public prosecutions, Shane Drumgold. Drumgold then took legal action against Sofronoff and the ACT government in the supreme court.

The supreme court case revealed that while leading the inquiry, Sofronoff had 273 interactions with one columnist for The Australian newspaper, Janet Albrechtsen, between January and July 2023.

Those interactions included 51 phone calls, text messages, emails and a private lunch meeting in Brisbane. Call logs submitted to court showed the former judge spent seven and a half hours on the phone with journalists from The Australian over the seven-month period, most of them to Albrechtsen.

The ACT integrity commissioner, Michael Adams KC, said in a statement on Friday he had determined “it is in the public interest to disclose that the commission is assessing whether the issues call for investigation”.

“I see no reputational damage arising from this making this announcement, noting that it involves no adverse findings of any kind,” he said.

Guardian Australia has contacted Sofronoff’s lawyers for a response.

The supreme court acting justice Stephen Kaye found in March that Sofronoff’s interactions with Albrechtsen gave the impression he “might have been influenced by the views held and publicly expressed” by her.

Brendan Lim, who represented Sofronoff in the supreme court, argued Sofronoff discussed practical matters about the inquiry with Albrechtsen, including when documents would become available.

“[Sofronoff] engaged with any journalist who approached him with legitimate requests for information and explains that Ms Albrechtsen was the most persistent of the journalists, but that did not reflect preferential treatment on his part,” Lim said in February.

Sofronoff’s report found Drumgold, in his case against Lehrmann, “at times … lost objectivity and did not act with fairness and detachment”.

Drumgold’s legal team had attempted to overturn eight of Sofronoff’s “serious findings of misconduct” in the supreme court, but was only successful in striking off one.

Drumgold alleged Sofronoff’s inquiry failed to give him a fair hearing, denied him natural justice, breached the law and “gave rise to a reasonable apprehension of bias”.

Sofronoff’s decision to hand his final report to Albrechtsen and another journalist before it was given to the ACT government will also be assessed by the watchdog.

Lehrmann, a former Liberal party staffer, has denied raping his then colleague, Brittany Higgins, and pleaded not guilty to a charge of sexual intercourse without consent. His criminal trial was abandoned due to juror misconduct and a second trial did not proceed due to prosecutors’ fears for Higgins’ mental health.

The ACT integrity commission gave no timeline for the length of the assessment process and said it would offer no further public comment until it has been completed.

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Asbestos discovered at three more Melbourne parks, says local council

Hobsons Bay city council, in the city’s west, confirms late on Friday that three further sites have been identified

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Victoria’s environment watchdog says it suspects an illegal dumping of construction waste was behind the discovery of asbestos in mulch in Melbourne’s west this week.

But the spread of asbestos could be broader than first suspected, with Hobsons Bay city council, in the city’s west, confirming late on Friday that three further sites have been identified.

Asbestos-containing material was initially found in mulch next to a playground in Donald McLean Reserve in Spotswood on Monday.

Asbestos was then also discovered in soil at a second park in the city’s north, with Merri-bek city council on Friday confirming the detection at Hosken Reserve in Coburg North, after an earlier discovery in late January.

On Friday, the Victorian Environment Protection Authority said it had identified other parks in the city’s west that received mulch from the same source as that used in Spotswood.

“Testing results have confirmed the only site with traces of asbestos is Donald McLean Reserve. Material from all other sites tested negative for asbestos,” the EPA said in a statement.

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The EPA said the issue was localised to the one site and believed “illegal dumping of construction and demolition waste” that occurred after the mulch was delivered was the source of the contamination.

However, late on Friday, a statement from Hobsons Bay Council contradicted the EPA’s findings, saying it had detected asbsetos at three more public parks.

“Hobsons Bay City Council is closing areas at three additional reserves after testing confirmed the presence of asbestos-containing material,” the council said in a statement.

“Sections of Crofts Reserve, Hosken Reserve and Lynch Reserve, all in Altona North, will be closed until further notice. Recycled mulch from these reserves was sent for testing, following the recent findings at Donald McLean Reserve in Spotswood.”

The statement said the council would work with a material hygienist and the EPA to undertake remediation works on all of the sites.

It said the materials discovered at the reserve were bonded asbestos, which is considered low-risk for people in contact with it unless it is damaged or badly weathered.

In a statement earlier on Friday, Merri-bek council said the “majority of the site” at Hosken Reserve had been closed to the public since asbestos was first discovered there in January.

“Following this discovery, appropriate measures were taken to ensure the contaminated soil was removed, the site was safe and local residents were notified,” they said.

“During more recent landscaping works, further asbestos-contaminated soil was discovered. This contaminated soil is now being removed by competent and qualified asbestos removalists and is expected to be completed by Friday 31 May.”

Throughout the removal works, air monitoring will be conducted to ensure the safety of workers and nearby residents, the spokesperson said. Workers on site will also be required to wear personal protective equipment.

They said any soil that contains asbestos is also “sealed, under cover and is inaccessible to the public”.

The council said in both instances, the asbestos found at the reserve has been “localised to soil only”.

All asbestos found on the site was considered non-friable, which means it is solid and cannot be crumbled or released into the air, the spokesperson said.

They said there was “no evidence” it was linked to any other asbestos contamination cases across the state or nationally.

“It is a frequent occurrence in inner Melbourne that construction projects will involve discovery of centuries-old or decades-old contamination, which can then be appropriately dealt with under standards and guidelines,” they said.

On Wednesday, the Hobsons Bay city council in Melbourne confirmed two pieces of building material found by a resident on Monday contained asbestos.

The council said the asbestos material was discovered in a recycled mulch product around mature tree-planting. A “virgin soft mulch” was also used around the playground.

It said it has identified the supplier of the mulch but has not made this information public.

The Victorian opposition said the state government must do more to ensure the state’s parks were safe for children to play in.

“This shouldn’t happen. The government needs to come clean and tell us: are there any other playgrounds that have the same kind of risk [and] what is the government doing to mitigate the risk?” the deputy Liberal leader, David Southwick, said.

Guardian Australia has approached the government for comment.

There is heightened community concern around asbestos contamination after the discovery of bonded asbestos at more than 75 sites, including parks and schools, in New South Wales.

Queensland authorities have also identified at least 90 sites for investigation after contaminated mulch was taken from two stockpiles.

EPA Victoria has conducted precautionary inspections of 59 commercial mulch producers and said on Wednesday no traces of asbestos were found in their products.

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Penny Wong says Netanyahu trying to ‘brush aside’ death of Zomi Frankcom ‘deeply insensitive’

Foreign minister’s condemnation of Israeli PM comes as IDF says it has completed its investigation into drone strike that killed seven aid workers

  • Zomi Frankcom’s family say Australian aid worker killed in Israeli airstrike was ‘doing the work she loves’
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The Australian foreign minister, Penny Wong, has rebuked Benjamin Netanyahu for trying to “brush aside” the deaths of Australian aid worker Zomi Frankcom and six of her colleagues in an Israeli missile attack in Gaza, labelling his remark that these things happen in war as “deeply insensitive”.

Wong’s direct personal condemnation of Netanyahu comes as the Israeli military reveals it has completed its investigation into the incident and briefed ambassadors from the countries whose citizens died in the attack.

“I find that statement … frankly, for the family in particular, a pretty insensitive – deeply insensitive – thing to say,” Wong said of the Israeli prime minister’s initial response.

“And what I’d say as the Australian foreign minister is we do not accept that explanation. We do not accept any suggestion that this is just something that can be brushed aside as just something that happens in war.”

The prime minister, Anthony Albanese, also stepped up his criticism on Thursday, calling Netanyahu’s initial explanation “not good enough”.

Israel is facing mounting international pressure over the incident, with Joe Biden telling Netanyahu in a phone call that future US support for the war in Gaza will depend on it taking concrete action to protect civilians and aid workers.

Three vehicles, marked as belonging to the charity World Central Kitchen, were struck by Israeli drones on Monday when they travelled along a route south of Deir al-Balah pre-approved and coordinated with the Israel Defense Forces.

In an interview with Guardian Australia’s Australian Politics podcast to be released on Saturday, Wong suggested the remarks amounted to an attempt to justify an action that was outside the rules of war. The podcast was recorded on Thursday.

“Even in war, there are rules and they include the principles of distinction between a military target and a civilian target,” Wong said.

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She also condemned the suggestion from an Israeli government spokesperson that darkness and confusion were also reasons for what Israel has called “a grave mistake”.

“We do not accept that these events – this attack on an aid convoy – can be dismissed or lessened or diminished in any way at all,” Wong said.

The foreign minister said both Israeli commanders and individual military personnel in the field had obligations under international and humanitarian law.

Wong emphasised that this was not the first Israeli attack on aid convoys, citing UN figures that 196 aid workers had been killed prior to the WCK incident.

Wong did not specifically endorse the Frankcom family’s calls for a war crimes investigation, but also did not rule it out. She would not be drawn on possible future sanctions against Israel, but said consequences would be considered once the full facts were known.

“I think ‘accountability’ means we find out what happened and that whatever steps are necessary as a consequence are taken,” Wong said.

The IDF said the findings of its investigation had been presented to the ambassadors of countries whose citizens were killed, and would be released to the public within 24 hours.

Guardian Australia understands Australia has been briefed on Israel’s investigation into the killing of WCK workers, but is still awaiting “a full and transparent report”.

The Australian government plans to engage with other affected countries to ensure they could all have confidence in the process and its outcomes.

Lt Col Peter Lerner, an IDF spokesperson, told ABC Radio National on Friday that the IDF liaison officer who had worked closely with WCK was “devastated from this because he was part of that coordination process”.

Pressed to justify the claim that the investigation was independent, Lerner said this was because it was carried out by “former military professionals” who were “independent of the chain of command”.

“They are not under the control of the IDF … they are not dependent on promotion or anything like that, they are completely independent of the system,” Lerner said.

Asked whether individual members of the IDF would be named and have action taken against them if they were found to be responsible for the attack, Lerner said: “I don’t know the outcome but if that is the situation I would expect nothing less.”

Lerner echoed Netanyahu’s initial remarks. “The nature of warfare is that it is always full of tragedies,” Lerner said. “Since the dawn of war, civilians have been caught up in warfare. We have to be better than that, we have to do better.”

Lerner pushed back at a report in the Israeli newspaper Haaretz earlier this week that there was poor discipline among IDF field commanders.

The newspaper quoted an Israeli intelligence source as saying that in Gaza “everyone does as he pleases” and interprets the rules of engagement individually.

Lerner said “generally” that “we would expect that the rules are upheld to the highest standards”.

“If there is a breach of them, then they need to be dealt with by disciplinary and command level capabilities and perhaps even criminal [charges] if there’s been a very dire mistake,” Lerner said.

“As a very broad observation I don’t accept Haaretz’s report, but it doesn’t mean that there can’t be mistakes or individual initiatives.”

  • Hear the full interview with Penny Wong on Guardian Australia’s Australian Politics podcast on Saturday

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Penny Wong says Netanyahu trying to ‘brush aside’ death of Zomi Frankcom ‘deeply insensitive’

Foreign minister’s condemnation of Israeli PM comes as IDF says it has completed its investigation into drone strike that killed seven aid workers

  • Zomi Frankcom’s family say Australian aid worker killed in Israeli airstrike was ‘doing the work she loves’
  • Follow our Australia news live blog for latest updates
  • Get our morning and afternoon news emails, free app or daily news podcast

The Australian foreign minister, Penny Wong, has rebuked Benjamin Netanyahu for trying to “brush aside” the deaths of Australian aid worker Zomi Frankcom and six of her colleagues in an Israeli missile attack in Gaza, labelling his remark that these things happen in war as “deeply insensitive”.

Wong’s direct personal condemnation of Netanyahu comes as the Israeli military reveals it has completed its investigation into the incident and briefed ambassadors from the countries whose citizens died in the attack.

“I find that statement … frankly, for the family in particular, a pretty insensitive – deeply insensitive – thing to say,” Wong said of the Israeli prime minister’s initial response.

“And what I’d say as the Australian foreign minister is we do not accept that explanation. We do not accept any suggestion that this is just something that can be brushed aside as just something that happens in war.”

The prime minister, Anthony Albanese, also stepped up his criticism on Thursday, calling Netanyahu’s initial explanation “not good enough”.

Israel is facing mounting international pressure over the incident, with Joe Biden telling Netanyahu in a phone call that future US support for the war in Gaza will depend on it taking concrete action to protect civilians and aid workers.

Three vehicles, marked as belonging to the charity World Central Kitchen, were struck by Israeli drones on Monday when they travelled along a route south of Deir al-Balah pre-approved and coordinated with the Israel Defense Forces.

In an interview with Guardian Australia’s Australian Politics podcast to be released on Saturday, Wong suggested the remarks amounted to an attempt to justify an action that was outside the rules of war. The podcast was recorded on Thursday.

“Even in war, there are rules and they include the principles of distinction between a military target and a civilian target,” Wong said.

  • Sign up for Guardian Australia’s free morning and afternoon email newsletters for your daily news roundup

She also condemned the suggestion from an Israeli government spokesperson that darkness and confusion were also reasons for what Israel has called “a grave mistake”.

“We do not accept that these events – this attack on an aid convoy – can be dismissed or lessened or diminished in any way at all,” Wong said.

The foreign minister said both Israeli commanders and individual military personnel in the field had obligations under international and humanitarian law.

Wong emphasised that this was not the first Israeli attack on aid convoys, citing UN figures that 196 aid workers had been killed prior to the WCK incident.

Wong did not specifically endorse the Frankcom family’s calls for a war crimes investigation, but also did not rule it out. She would not be drawn on possible future sanctions against Israel, but said consequences would be considered once the full facts were known.

“I think ‘accountability’ means we find out what happened and that whatever steps are necessary as a consequence are taken,” Wong said.

The IDF said the findings of its investigation had been presented to the ambassadors of countries whose citizens were killed, and would be released to the public within 24 hours.

Guardian Australia understands Australia has been briefed on Israel’s investigation into the killing of WCK workers, but is still awaiting “a full and transparent report”.

The Australian government plans to engage with other affected countries to ensure they could all have confidence in the process and its outcomes.

Lt Col Peter Lerner, an IDF spokesperson, told ABC Radio National on Friday that the IDF liaison officer who had worked closely with WCK was “devastated from this because he was part of that coordination process”.

Pressed to justify the claim that the investigation was independent, Lerner said this was because it was carried out by “former military professionals” who were “independent of the chain of command”.

“They are not under the control of the IDF … they are not dependent on promotion or anything like that, they are completely independent of the system,” Lerner said.

Asked whether individual members of the IDF would be named and have action taken against them if they were found to be responsible for the attack, Lerner said: “I don’t know the outcome but if that is the situation I would expect nothing less.”

Lerner echoed Netanyahu’s initial remarks. “The nature of warfare is that it is always full of tragedies,” Lerner said. “Since the dawn of war, civilians have been caught up in warfare. We have to be better than that, we have to do better.”

Lerner pushed back at a report in the Israeli newspaper Haaretz earlier this week that there was poor discipline among IDF field commanders.

The newspaper quoted an Israeli intelligence source as saying that in Gaza “everyone does as he pleases” and interprets the rules of engagement individually.

Lerner said “generally” that “we would expect that the rules are upheld to the highest standards”.

“If there is a breach of them, then they need to be dealt with by disciplinary and command level capabilities and perhaps even criminal [charges] if there’s been a very dire mistake,” Lerner said.

“As a very broad observation I don’t accept Haaretz’s report, but it doesn’t mean that there can’t be mistakes or individual initiatives.”

  • Hear the full interview with Penny Wong on Guardian Australia’s Australian Politics podcast on Saturday

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The Picture of Dorian Gray’s Kip Williams steps down as Sydney Theatre Company artistic director

Williams, who directed the play, leaving company to prepare for its potential Broadway season following acclaimed West End run starring Sarah Snook

The Sydney Theatre Company artistic director, Kip Williams, who steered the theatre to new heights with the global success of his one-woman production the Picture of Dorian Gray, has announced he is stepping down after 13 years with the company.

Williams was the youngest artistic director of the STC when he was appointed at the age of 30 in 2016. He will finish his tenure at the end of 2024 after eight years, in anticipation that The Picture of Dorian Gray will head to Broadway next year. In its recent run in London’s West End, Succession star Sarah Snook played all 26 roles to huge acclaim. The role was first performed by Eryn Jean Norvill in multiple sell-out runs across Australia.

Deadline reported in February that Snook was the frontrunner to perform the role in the US if the production did head to Broadway.

Williams is known for his unique approach to live performance, using live camera feeds and screens on stage to create a hybrid form he calls “cine-theatre”, which allows him to cast a single actor in multiple roles, manipulate live images and embellish them with pre-recorded footage. The Picture of Dorian Gray was a resounding success when it debuted in Australia in 2020, followed by his take on Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde in 2022, which starred just two actors.

His final work in this trilogy of Gothic adaptations is Bram Stoker’s Dracula, with Zahra Newman set to play all the roles later this year.

Announcing his departure to STC staff on Friday, Williams said it had been “the honour of a lifetime” and that he was “delighted that the future touring plans for a number of productions I’ve adapted and directed will keep me close to the company in the coming years”.

A brand-new work by Williams will be among the shows in next year’s STC program, to be announced in September.

The STC chair, Ann Johnson, called Williams “an exceptional leader” and said he had headed “one of the most critically acclaimed and creatively vibrant periods of the company’s history”.

“Kip has put great focus on Australian writing, championing new voices, and has realised his goal of gender parity for women writers and directors across every season,” Johnson said.

“He has mentored and nurtured the careers of some of our most exciting writers, directors, designers, performers and technicians, and the Australian theatre industry is a richer and more diverse place for the role that Kip has played in it.”

Williams joined STC as assistant director in 2011, before being appointed associate director by the then artistic directors, Cate Blanchett and Andrew Upton, in 2012. He became resident director in 2013 and artistic director in 2016.

Over eight years, the company said, Williams programmed 89 productions, two-thirds of which were original Australian works or adaptations by Australian writers. Williams also directed 24 STC productions, including the seven-hour-long The Harp in the South Part One and Part Two starring Kate Mulvany, and Suddenly Last Summer, for which he won a Helpmann award for best director.

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Police operation in which NSW man shot dead during psychotic episode was ‘flawed’, inquest finds

Todd McKenzie’s death prompts calls from deputy coroner for summit into police responses to mental health incidents

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A New South Wales police operation that resulted in a man being shot dead by the force while suffering psychosis was significantly “flawed”, an inquest has found.

Todd McKenzie, 40, was suffering from a psychosis when he shot three times by police in his Taree home in 2019 following a nine-hour siege after police responded to reports he was on the street yelling and holding a knife.

The deputy state coroner Harriet Grahame urged the NSW government to hold a summit into how police respond to mental health incidents, saying it was the need for training was a “live issue that needs urgent attention”.

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“In my view, it’s time to grapple with these issues in and away from the pain of each individual death, these issues affect the whole community not just the grief that lasts for ever with the death associated with a love one,” Grahame said.

Grahame said she would send the findings to the NSW minister for police, Yasmin Catley, and the minister for mental health, Rose Jackson.

The findings come amid increasing scrutiny on how police respond to mental health related incidents. Last year, Steve Pampalian, Jesse Deacon and Krista Kach were fatally wounded or shot by NSW police between while they were experiencing mental health issues that left them detached from reality.

Guardian Australia last year revealed that 52 people experiencing mental health distress died in interactions with the state’s police during the past five years.

McKenzie’s stepfather, Neil Wilkins, told reporters outside the coroner’s court that “no family shouldn’t have to go through what we’ve been through”.

“What Todd needed was medical attention and a kind and gentle word from his family,” Wilkins said. “Instead, he got the full weight of a siege set up by NSW police. They had tunnel vision and wanted to make an arrest – we all know the result: Todd was shot three times and died that night.”

Grahame said one of the “most important facing police” was finding practical ways to improve de-escalation techniques.

“In my view the police operations which ended Todd’s life was flawed in a number of significant respects,” Grahame said.

The flaws included the police “inappropriate” communication with Mckenzie, she said. The inquest revealed a general duty police officer had taunted Mckenzie, who lived with schizophrenia, during his mental health crisis.

During the inquest’s proceedings body cam footage was played which captured the taunts during the siege.

“At the end of the day I’d much rather you come out here with your bloody knife and try [have a] go [at] us all. I’m getting fucking sick of this,” the officer had said to McKenzie. “This entire scenario is your delusion Todd … at the end of the day, basically everything you said was a lie.”

Grahame also said police failed to keep Mckenzie’s family properly “in the loop” or informed” when they declined offers of negotiation support from his family.

“Once tactical police broke the window and rammed the door of Todd’s home, disaster of some kind in my view was almost ensured,” Grahame said of the “breach and hold tactic”, which saw McKenzie run at police with a knife.

Unlike the taunts by the general duty police officer, this was not captured due to tactical police officers not being required in NSW to wear body cams.

Grahame recommended this should change and that tactical officers be required to wear body cameras.

She also recommended a review and audit of police training be undertaken every two years to ensure officers of all ranks undergo adequate and regular training in responding to mental health incidents.

Her final recommendation was for the NSW police commissioner to “consider” updating the force’s standard operating procedures to include a requirement for a team leader to record considerations of why, as well as why not, a psychiatrist was engaged in a response.

George Newhouse, the chief executive of the National Justice Project, said the group would push for the coroner’s suggestion for a summit.

“I think it’s really important that people understand that people are dying at the hands of police because they are sick, they have an illness,” he said.

Sue Higginson, the NSW Greens spokesperson for justice, said the coroner had taken the “unusual step” of sending the findings to the government.
“Premier Chris Minns needs to step up,” Higginson said. “Police are failing, they need help and we need immediate and drastic action.”

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Men on the run after police attacked and cars rammed at Melbourne petrol station

Victoria police say two men attempted to assault officers and rammed vehicles at Kings Way in South Melbourne

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Two men are on the run after Victorian police officers were attacked and their cars rammed at a petrol station.

Police were called to an Ampol service station on Kings Way, South Melbourne, at 3am on Friday, with reports of two men slumped in a car.

Both men woke up and attempted to assault the two officers before attempting to flee the scene, police said.

The pair then rammed their car into two police vehicles, which had been parked behind and in front of them.

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It was believed the car also collided with another vehicle on Kings Way and Dorcas Street while fleeing.

At 3.40am, the offenders’ car was located under the West Gate freeway.

One officer received minor injuries in the incident and was treated at the scene.

A police helicopter and the dog squad have joined the search for the men.

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China will use AI to disrupt elections in the US, South Korea and India, Microsoft warns

Beijing did a test run in Taiwan using AI-generated content to influence voters away from a pro-sovereignty candidate

China will attempt to disrupt elections in the US, South Korea and India this year with artificial intelligence-generated content after making a dry run with the presidential poll in Taiwan, Microsoft has warned.

The US tech firm said it expected Chinese state-backed cyber groups to target high-profile elections in 2024, with North Korea also involved, according to a report by the company’s threat intelligence team published on Friday.

“As populations in India, South Korea and the United States head to the polls, we are likely to see Chinese cyber and influence actors, and to some extent North Korean cyber actors, work toward targeting these elections,” the report reads.

Microsoft said that “at a minimum” China will create and distribute through social media AI-generated content that “benefits their positions in these high-profile elections”.

The company added that the impact of AI-made content was minor but warned that could change.

“While the impact of such content in swaying audiences remains low, China’s increasing experimentation in augmenting memes, videos and audio will continue – and may prove effective down the line,” said Microsoft.

Microsoft said in the report that China had already attempted an AI-generated disinformation campaign in the Taiwan presidential election in January. The company said this was the first time it had seen a state-backed entity using AI-made content in a bid to influence a foreign election.

A Beijing-backed group called Storm 1376, also known as Spamouflage or Dragonbridge, was highly active during the Taiwanese election. Its attempts to influence the election included posting fake audio on YouTube of the election candidate Terry Gou – who had bowed out in November – endorsing another candidate. Microsoft said the clip was “likely AI generated”. YouTube removed the content before it reached many users.

The Beijing-backed group pushed a series of AI-generated memes about the ultimately successful candidate, William Lai – a pro-sovereignty candidate opposed by Beijing – that levelled baseless claims against Lai accusing him of embezzling state funds. There was also an increased use of AI-generated TV news anchors, a tactic that has also been used by Iran, with the “anchor” making unsubstantiated claims about Lai’s private life including fathering illegitimate children.

Microsoft said the news anchors were created by the CapCut tool, which is developed by Chinese company ByteDance, the owner of TikTok.

Microsoft added that Chinese groups continue to mount influence campaigns in the US. It said Beijing-backed actors are using social media accounts to pose “divisive questions” and attempt to understand issues dividing US voters.

“This could be to gather intelligence and precision on key voting demographics ahead of the US Presidential election,” said Microsoft in a blog post accompanying the report.

One post on X, formerly Twitter, referred to a $118bn bipartisan bill in the US that combined a $20bn of investment in the US-Mexico border with a $75bn package for Ukraine and Israel. It asked: “What’s your reaction?” Another flagged the loss of an F-35 fighter in South Carolina last year, saying “only under the Biden administration” could a valuable piece of military hardware be lost – although debris was found soon after – and asked “what do you think about this?”

The report was published in the same week that a White House-appointed official review board said “a cascade of errors” by Microsoft let state-backed Chinese cyber operators break into email accounts of senior US officials. Last month, the US and UK governments accused China-backed hackers of waging a years-long cyber campaign targeting politicians, journalists and businesses, as well as the UK’s election watchdog.

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