SYDNEY, Australia — One of Australia’s most prominent television and musical performers, Craig McLachlan, has been charged with assault and eight counts of indecent assault relating to events reaching back to 2014 — a potential breakthrough for the media companies he has sued for defamation, and for the country’s nascent #MeToo movement.
Mr. McLachlan, 53, a familiar face in Australia for starring roles in TV favorites like “Neighbours” and “Home and Away,” has been charged by the Victoria Police for indecent acts said to have occurred in Melbourne around the same time as his now-scrutinized performance in a stage version of “The Rocky Horror Show.”
His interactions with women during that show’s run at the Comedy Theater in Melbourne were the subject of an investigative report from The Sydney Morning Herald, The Age, and ABC, Australia’s public broadcaster, revealing that several female co-stars accused him of indecent and inappropriate behavior.
Australia’s secretive judicial system — its strict privacy laws and restrictions on the sharing of information about individual cases — make it impossible to declare that the criminal charges directly relate to the “Rocky Horror Show” allegations.
The police declined to share information about the specifics of the alleged assaults. A spokesman for Mr. McLachlan said: “Craig is innocent of these charges which will be vigorously defended.”
Legal experts, however, said the charges threaten to undermine Mr. McLachlan’s defamation claim while highlighting the convoluted nature of Australia’s legal system when it comes to sexual assault cases.
Defamation law in Australia strongly favors the plaintiff, and it is widely blamed for making it more difficult to confront the problem of sexual harassment.
The powerful men who end up accused tend to sue and the costs can be immense, not just to media companies but also to those who lodge the accusations.
Mr. McLachlan is currently suing Fairfax Media and ABC, as well as an actress, Christie Whelan Browne, for 6.5 million Australian dollars, about $4.7 million, in damages.
[Read about how Geoffrey Rush’s defamation case has led to a #MeToo reckoning.]
Still, Mr. McLachlan now seems more vulnerable in part, media lawyers say, because the judge in Mr. McLachlan’s case has allowed for a rare defense of “contextual truth.”
According to the judge’s December decision, the media companies are able to defend their reporting at the trial (which begins Feb. 4 in the New South Wales Supreme Court) by arguing that Mr. McLachlan is “a sexual predator in that he has indecently assaulted and sexually harassed female colleagues in the workplace.”
The criminal charges in the state of Victoria are still unproven, but whether they relate to the “Rocky Horror Show” allegations, lawyers say, they could bolster the media’s defense.
The defamation trial could be postponed to let the criminal case play out. Or details from the criminal charges could become part of the civil defamation trial in one way or another.
“There’s a bit of room to run but it seems quite significant,” said Daniel Joyce, a senior law lecturer at the University of New South Wales who specializes in free speech issues. “It could really strengthen the media’s contextual truth defense.”
For Mr. McLachlan, at least, it seems to mean more time in the spotlight.
Four days after the defamation trial begins on Feb. 4, he is scheduled to appear in Melbourne Magistrates’ Court, to face 10 charges brought by the Melbourne Sexual Offenses and Child Abuse Investigation Team: one charge of assault, eight charges of indecent assault, and one count of attempted indecent assault.