Andrew Bolt and the Abc: Did the Reporting on George Pell Step over a Line?
By Margaret Simons
April 14, 2020
| Cardinal George Pell makes his way through members of the media to the court in Melbourne on 27 February 2019. The ABC has come under scrutiny from Pell supporters for its coverage of the cardinal. Photograph: Asanka Brendon Ratnayake/AFP/Getty Images|
This week I rang the ABC investigative journalist Sarah Ferguson to ask what she thought of the attacks on Revelation, her television series about sex abuse in the Catholic church.
“Have there been some attacks?” she replied, deadpan.
There certainly have – particularly over the final episode, which detailed allegations against George Pell, which by happenstance screened just days before the high court unanimously found in his favour and threw out his conviction on sex abuse charges.
That final episode is not available now. Ferguson says it is being updated and should be restored to the ABC’s on-demand viewing platform, iView, later this week.
Will there be any changes caused by fear of defamation following Pell’s successful high court appeal?
“We went with material we had complete confidence in,” she said.
Meanwhile, the ABC is coming in for a terrible kicking from Pell’s supporters. Ferguson is a favoured target, but so is her colleague, Louise Milligan, who has reported on allegations against Pell for 7.30, and wrote the book Cardinal: the Rise and Fall of George Pell detailing a number of allegations including the ones that caused him to be jailed.
Andrew Bolt, a consistent Pell supporter, has alleged the ABC took “a starring role in the vilification, destruction and jailing of an innocent man” and on Tuesday night in an exclusive interview with Pell on Sky News, weighed in again with accusations of persecution by the national broadcaster.
“Does the ABC’s role in your persecution concern you?” Bolt asked.
“Yes it does,” Pell replied. “Because, I mean, it’s partly financed by Catholic taxes.” Some might think of that as an additional reason for scrutiny of the church, of course.
Pell said: “I acknowledge the right of those who differ from me to state their views. But in a national broadcaster to have an overwhelming presentation of one view, and only one view, I think that’s a betrayal of the national interest.”
Bolt continued on his theme of witch-hunts, culture wars and conspiracies. He previously asserted that book publishers, the ABC, the Victorian director of public prosecutions and Victoria police have “acted together” to bring Pell down – an inherently unlikely allegation and one that has been denied by all concerned.
Beneath these attacks lies an important ethical question about what is generally referred to as “trial by media”. Should the media publish serious allegations against people before, after and during court processes? Did the reporting about Pell step over a line?
| Australian journalist Sarah Ferguson in a still from Revelation, an ABC documentary about sexual abuse in the Catholic church. Photograph: ABC TV|
The Pell case polarises people, as demonstrated by the wordplay around whether the high court found Pell to be innocent.
Two important aspects of our justice system collide. First, there is the presumption of innocence, which holds that accused people are entitled to be regarded as innocent unless the allegations against them can be proven beyond reasonable doubt. In the legal system, Pell is now entitled to that presumption of innocence.
Some commentators – including legal academics – have described this as Pell being acquitted on a technicality. At the other extreme, his supporters suggested the high court finding means he should never have been prosecuted.
This disparity highlights part of the answer to the trial-by-media debate. It shows that the media and the courts have very different roles in bringing alleged wrongs to public attention and holding people to account.
The role of the legal system is vital, but narrow. It has its own incapacities. For example, it can be rough on the victims of crime, whereas the media often advocates for them and gives them voice. That is part of what we have a media for – whether you are talking about the victims of sexual abuse or the people on the end of one-punch attacks.
A recent example of where the media got ahead of the law on a story is the runaway hit podcast Teacher’s Pet, which suggested that Chris Dawson murdered his wife, Lyn Dawson. Dawson is now facing murder charges, to which he has pleaded not guilty. His defence team have suggested that the podcast may have “contaminated” the evidence of key witnesses. Others suggest Dawson would never have been charged without the evidence uncovered for the podcast.
|Chris Dawson is facing charges that he murdered his wife, Lyn Dawson. Photograph: Dean Lewins/AAP|
Yet the commentators who are attacking the ABC over Pell have not suggested that the podcast – by News Corp journalist Hedley Thomas – should not have been made.
So what gives the media the right to publish, and republish, such serious allegations, when the criminal standard of proof has not or cannot be met?
It is precisely because the media is not a court of law and has a different function.
There are many issues that will never come before the courts for adjudication, but nevertheless should be brought to public attention. Think the controversy over sports grants, or the allegations concerning one of Julia Gillard’s past relationships while she was working at Slater and Gordon, or the examination of water deals in the Murray-Darling Basin.
The role of the legal system is to decide the guilt of individuals and punish the guilty. It rightly sets a very high bar – beyond reasonable doubt.
The media has a wider role and a different standard – are the allegations something the public should know about?
That doesn’t mean journalists should be cavalier. The judgments involved are serious and difficult – particularly so when, as with Pell and as with Teacher’s Pet – there are allegations that the media has interfered with or prejudiced legal processes. Louise Milligan was a witness in part of Pell’s legal case, and Hedley Thomas is expected to be a witness in the Dawson case.
The literary critic Peter Craven has described Milligan as “a writer of flaming convictions and sensationalist prose” whose book amounted to the case for the prosecution. Thomas told 60 Minutes that “everything points to Chris Dawson killing Lyn”. It’s never comfortable when journalists become part of the story, and it’s right and healthy to hold them to account.
So how do we assess what the ABC has done in the case of Pell?
Before Milligan and Ferguson published, there were a series of allegations against Pell, a powerful public figure. Bolt and others have pointed out that most of the allegations in Milligan’s book never got to trial. But it is also the case that most of them were prosecuted to committal stage. In other words, they passed the filter of police investigation and the assessment of the prosecution authorities, who judged they were substantial enough to be tested in court. Unless you buy Bolt’s conspiracy theory, that’s significant.
It’s useful to consider the counterfactual. What if the journalists had done their interviews, found people they judged credible making these serious allegations, and then done nothing?
Surely that is not how we want journalists to behave. It would amount to cover-up.
I don’t give the ABC a complete bill of clean health. I am old-school enough to believe that journalists should conduct themselves with care and disinterest in the public eye.
While passion on behalf of the survivors of sex abuse is understandable, there has been some social media activity by ABC journalists that looks very much like lobbying against Pell in particular.
In my book that’s conduct unbecoming and undermines the force of the journalism. I wonder why the ABC doesn’t rein some of it in under its social media policy, which directs employees’ use of social media should not “undermine your effectiveness at work”.
The Pell story is not over. It is reported that there will be civil actions, and at some stage previously redacted parts of the royal commission report into institutional child sex abuse dealing with Pell’s history will probably be published.
The story is not only about what happens before the courts.
If Chris Dawson is found not guilty, it doesn’t mean Hedley Thomas shouldn’t have made the Teachers’ Pet podcast. The high court decision doesn’t mean that journalists shouldn’t have published allegations against George Pell.
But both cases mean that the decisions of the journalists, and the way they did their job, rightly come under public scrutiny.
Should the media campaign against individuals and mount the case for the prosecution? I would say no, but I would also say that they bear a vital responsibility to bring serious allegations to public attention.
The lines are blurry, the judgments difficult. Not every allegation should be published. Not every piece of journalism is beyond reproach.
But I think the ABC has been more right than wrong.
Bolt has said the ABC should be “ashamed, humiliated, repentant and begging for forgiveness”. He is clearly not going to get that satisfaction. Nor should he.