Geoffrey Rush says there were no winners in yesterday’s defamation verdict, and he’s right. But there is clear loser and that is Eryn-Jean Norvill.
The actress who starred opposite Rush in a 2010 Sydney Theatre Company production of King Lear never wanted this outcome. Norvill didn’t commence court proceedings. She didn’t seek out coverage in the media. She didn’t intend that her sexual harassment claim against Rush be made public in any way. She simply wanted her employer to know about the alleged behaviour and for it to stop.
Norvill’s experience was taken out of her control by reckless reporting and ultimately elevated to a landmark defamation case, which drew international attention. It’s important to remember that Rush’s victory is one over defamatory reporting. Despite dutifully complying with what was required of her, Eryn-Jean Norvill has been chewed up and spat out, by a societal system that continually works against women.
We can apportion blame for the reduction of this woman to mere collateral damage in multiple directions. First and foremost, it has to sit with the truly irresponsible journalism from Nationwide News who first published this story. Justice Wigney said this was “a recklessly irresponsible piece of sensationalist journalism of the worst kind”. The judgement took aim at a series of two articles (and one poster) from 2017 as “extravagant, excessive and sensationalist”.
Host of the ABC’s Media Watch program Paul Barry was appalled by the reporting and warned that “any future victim of sexual misbehaviour who is genuine and wants to make a complaint to the newspapers, or any newspaper that wants to write about such a thing, will be severely discouraged from doing so because the consequences are just so extreme”. Rush was awarded $850,000 in damages for lost reputation and may receive millions more in lost earnings.
“Eryn-Jean Norvill has been chewed up and spat out, by a societal system that continually works against women.”
Secondly, there are legitimate questions about how Australian workplaces handle sexual harassment claims. Most women who raise these issues at work aren’t seeking retribution or any kind of legal involvement. They simply want to be, and feel, safe. Systemic and persistent gender inequalities mean that women’s concerns may not be taken seriously, particularly when they’re levelled at someone with significant positional – or in this case, celebrity – power.
Evidence from the trial indicates Norvill simply didn’t know how to deal with what she claims was Rush’s inappropriate on-set and on-stage behaviour. She says she sought the informal protection of others in the cast, who avoided engaging with her concerns. According to Norvill’s in-court statements nobody was forthcoming with support because the theatre fraternity wouldn’t entertain potentially ruinous accusations against one of their most beloved stars.
Setting aside the validity or otherwise of Norvill’s sexual harassment claims, this is an all too familiar story. In the wake of #MeToo, many women have spoken about being made to feel deeply uncomfortable in workplaces and there being no effective avenue to resolve their concerns. Australia lacks any kind of real community consensus for what is and isn’t permissible workplace behaviour. Women are suffering because of it.
Norvill spoke in the trial about a “level of hierarchy that kept that level of fear and silence in place” at her place of work. That’s a perspective shared by Orange is the New Black star, Yael Stone, another actress who has made public allegations about Geoffrey Rush’s on set behaviour. Allegations that Rush, once again, vehemently denies.
Stone told the New York Times that Rush danced naked in her dressing room, sent erotic texts and watched her shower without permission, while acting in The Diary of a Madman together in 2010. When asked why she never complained at the time, Stone said: “There was no part of my brain considering speaking to anyone in any official capacity. This was a huge star… What were they going to do? Fire Geoffrey and keep me?”
The third party to share responsibility for Norvill’s public demolition is the courts themselves. Court proceedings reveal aggressive questioning about why Norvill praised Rush during media interviews while the alleged misbehaviour was occurring. Why would someone speak positively about a man who was harming her? This kind of thinking blatantly ignores cultural pressures and power imbalances, betraying a simplistic and reductive attitude to behaviours.
Further, Judge Wigney wouldn’t entertain the idea that older actors like Rush, and other senior men working in and around the theatre, would have different views of what is culturally appropriate in the workplace. “That submission is rejected. There is simply no basis for it,” the judgement reads. Norvill was dismissed as a witness who was “prone to exaggeration and embellishment”, a criticism that some keen observers of the case believe went too far.
This was a case about defamation but its repercussions will be felt most keenly by women who have and are experiencing sexual harassment in workplaces. The messy outcome sends a message to women that there’s never a “right” way to make an allegation of inappropriate conduct or to speak up about being made to feel uncomfortable. Better to stay quiet.
And so, our culture of silence is made anew.
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