Brittany Higgins says alleged rape became ‘not about me’ as top journalists vied for story, court told

<span>Photograph: Mick Tsikas/AAP</span>
Photograph: Mick Tsikas/AAP

Brittany Higgins says she felt her alleged rape became “not about me or my story” after she came forward to journalists who were vying for the exclusive story, a court has heard.

In the ACT supreme court on Thursday, Higgins also denied she deliberately set out to damage the Liberal party by going public about the alleged rape, and said she spoke to the media in an effort to force cultural reform.

Steven Whybrow, the barrister representing Higgins’s accused rapist, Bruce Lehrmann, focused much of his cross-examination on Higgins’s dealings with journalists, including News Corp’s Samantha Maiden and Channel 10’s Lisa Wilkinson.

Related: Brittany Higgins kept dress unwashed and under her bed after alleged rape, court hears

Maiden and Wilkinson were the first journalists to interview Higgins about her alleged rape by her colleague and fellow political staffer Lehrmann in the office of the then defence industry minister Linda Reynolds in March 2019, an allegation Lehrmann is fighting at trial.

Higgins said she felt there was tension between Maiden and Wilkinson about who would get the exclusive rights to publishing the story.

She said it increasingly “became not about me or my story” and more about who would win journalism awards by getting the exclusive.

Whybrow suggested to Higgins that she had wanted to cause maximum damage to the Liberal party by talking to journalists about her allegations.

He played the court an excerpt of a six-hour recording in 2021 involving staff at Channel 10’s The Project and Higgins’s partner, David Sharaz, during which Higgins was present.

In the audio, Sharaz is heard saying they wanted the story to break at the start of a sitting week and that he had a “friend” on the Labor side, the now finance minister Katy Gallagher, who would “probe and continue it going”.

“So sitting week, story comes out, they have to answer questions in question time, it’s a mess for them,” he said.

Higgins told the court her partner’s political views were not her own.

She told the court she had loved the Liberal party and went public to try to make a change.

“I loved my party, I loved the Liberal party,” she said. “It sounds absurd. I didn’t necessarily want to hurt them. I wanted to reform this issue.”

She said she pursued a police complaint and media coverage at the same time, but with different goals.

“I tried both avenues. I thought, I’ll speak about this in the media, I’ll do my act of service in leaving and talk to the media, and I’ll also speak to the police,” she said.

“I went down both avenues and I stand by my choice. I’m not ashamed of that.”

The court heard that Higgins had secretly recorded two conversations about the allegations before resigning and going public – one with the chief of staff of her then minister, Michaelia Cash, and another with Cash herself.

She said she made the covert recordings for her own legal protection. She shared the recording of Cash’s chief of staff with Maiden to help corroborate her version of events, the court heard.

“All of it sounds ridiculous, but I needed a chief of staff to corroborate it,” she said.

During the call, Cash’s chief of staff also mentioned another woman had come forward alleging she had been sexually assaulted in the Liberal party but never made a police complaint, Higgins said.

Higgins also recorded a conversation with Cash, which she described as the weirdest phone call of her life, because the minister seemed oblivious to even the most basic details of her allegations.

She forwarded the interview with Cash to a friend, who is now a public relations adviser, the court heard.

“It was for safekeeping … I had this unfounded belief that I would lose recordings,” she said.

“It’s my word against a cabinet minister’s. The disparity between those two powers is ridiculous.”

Related: Bruce Lehrmann trial: Brittany Higgins told police she was ‘so scared’ of coming forward with allegations

Whybrow also quizzed Higgins about the preparation of an information brief about her allegations, including a timeline and attachments, which was shared with the media.

Higgins told the court she was initially intending the brief to be for police. But, she said, when the story broke in 2021, she and Sharaz were inundated with media inquiries.

She said she “wasn’t functioning as a human being” and coped by taking large amounts of Valium. During that period, her partner had decided to send the brief to several journalists, the court heard. It was subsequently shared throughout the press gallery in what Higgins described as a breach of trust.

The trial continues before chief justice Lucy McCallum on Friday.