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Brittany Higgins, her Bumble date and the line between perception and reality

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Somewhere in Australia, a man called Nick has seen his identity reduced to “Bumble date”.

He was Brittany Higgins’s date on the night in 2019 on which she would later claim to have been raped by her senior colleague, Bruce Lehrmann, and in the defamation trial currently afoot he is defined by his irrelevance.

Brittany Higgins has finished giving evidence in Bruce Lehrmann’s defamation case.Credit: Louise Kennerley

Higgins was taken aback when Lehrmann’s barrister Steven Whybrow, SC, referred to the date as Nick (“I haven’t heard his name – that’s his name!“) only to be reminded that she had once included it in the draft of a book she was writing about the incident. Higgins had arranged to have a drink with Nick at the Dock Hotel after meeting him on the Bumble dating app. Later, Justice Michael Lee asked Whybrow to please refer to the gentleman by his name and not “Bumble date”.

But through his anonymity, Nick has been spared from the knot of agendas that has ensnared many others who have been involved in the saga – from cabinet ministers to high-profile journalists and senior members of the legal profession, many of whom have sought to justify their actions, and establish the ascendancy of their version of the truth – since Higgins and Lehrmann entered the parliamentary office of Senator Linda Reynolds in the small hours of March 23, 2019.

Some of these individuals have done so through the media. Some are attempting to do so through the legal system. And the battle underway in the Federal Court could be seen as the crucible of those competing narratives: Lehrmann is suing Network Ten and its journalist Lisa Wilkinson for defamation over the version of events put by Higgins.

He says that her rape claim is entirely false, and that she concocted it to save her job after she was found naked and passed out from intoxication on the minister’s couch.

Higgins has put her account variously and vociferously. If she was tearful on day one of her cross-examination and determined on day two, she had moved by day three to fulmination. She frequently leapt beyond the question being asked to explain her actions and the reasons behind them. Lee pointed out to her that the ordeal would be over more quickly for her if she refrained from giving speeches.

The day began with a win for Lehrmann’s barrister when the judge allowed him to put questions to Higgins about her speech on the steps of the ACT Supreme Court after Lehrmann’s criminal trial was aborted due to juror misconduct. The underlying presumption was that Higgins wanted to derail the chances of a second criminal trial because she would prefer the case to play out in civil proceedings where there was a lower burden of proof.

But when Higgins met that line of questioning, she played it straight down the wicket. She agreed that she welcomed the chance to give evidence at the defamation proceedings (“I would not let my rapist become a millionaire by being a rapist”) and denied that she wanted to “blow up” the chances of a retrial.

It was not her choice for the director of public prosecutions to withdraw the case out of concern for her mental health, she said. “I was willing to go through with the criminal case again,” she said. “It was only advised by doctors and lawyers that I couldn’t.”

As for Nick, aka Bumble date, his cameo in the events of March 2023 did serve a role, if only to highlight the way perception and reality can become blurred. Higgins earlier told the court that he had left their date early after being mocked by the political and defence staff at the pub. They felt he had made out his job to be bigger and more important than it was, she said.

Then she was played CCTV footage that showed she spent little time with Nick during the evening and she seemed to prefer the company of her colleagues. Whybrow suggested to her that she “effectively ghosted” him. Higgins responded in a chastened tone: “I was pretty drunk but I acknowledge by this footage that what I was doing was pretty rude.”

As he left, Nick could be seen on the CCTV shaking hands with one of Higgins’ Canberra colleagues and exchanging a business card.

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