ABC News publishes story "Why the ABC's reporting of the George Pell case wasn't a witch-hunt"
Saturday, 11 April 2020
An extract from Paul Kelly's brilliant analysis of the Pell fiasco in The Australian today.
The George Pell story is a fiasco that combines incompetence and malevolence. It had every aspect of tragedy — a big man who polarised opinion, a church engaged in criminal behaviour, victims who demanded justice, and police, media and legal institutions that failed to honour their obligations.
It is Pell’s opponents who retreated from legal reasoning. It is Pell’s opponents who fomented a mood bordering on irrational vindictiveness that meant he was denied fair process. The High Court’s repeated use of the word “rational” in its judgment is revealing in its logic — that Pell was treated in an irrational way by the justice system.
Only the High Court, in its wisdom, halted the abuse of the justice system. The force of its judgment raises the inevitable question: if this case had been treated on merit Pell would not have been charged. The evidence was inherently implausible.
We live in a time of institutional failure, demonstrated in our financial, political and religious systems. Sadly, institutional failure can beget more institutional failure. This has happened in the Pell saga in relation to Victoria Police, the Director of Public Prosecutions, the Victorian justice system and much of the media, with the ABC conspicuous for its sustained campaign against Pell.
These institutions are compromised. In each case they failed to meet their responsibility. These failures should neither be denied nor suppressed. Each contributed to a situation where Australia’s most senior Catholic and the most senior figure in the church worldwide to face such accusations was convicted as a sexual predator, with huge cultural and moral consequences if this conviction had been upheld.
A realistic and honest assessment is that Pell, the nation’s senior Catholic, was unable to get a fair trial in Victoria. There was a climate of opinion against him that was irredeemably hostile. Much of this was cultivated by the media spearheaded by the ABC. It became a serious institutional and social failure and arose primarily because of Pell’s identity and the institution he represented
Some media outlets made serious mistakes in the Pell fiasco. They fuelled the mob mentality. The job of the ABC was to inform and educate on one of the most contentious trials in the past half-century. Instead, it campaigned against Pell, essentially offering a one-sided condemnatory view in a coverage that was extensive, powerful and influential with the public.
The High Court’s decision reveals that, from the start, there were two sides to this story — a flawed church that Pell represented and a flawed Victorian legal system prejudiced against him. The ABC saw only one side. Its campaigning mentality meant it failed to inform the public about the real nature of this contest and the issues involved.
It remains exposed by the High Court’s decision.
Paul is spot on.
But the ABC has learned nothing.
Rather than admit to its mistakes, it's compounding them.
A couple of hours ago, its editorial director Craig McMurtrie published this.
From the first trial that resulted in a hung jury, to a sweeping suppression order that set the national media and the courts on a collision course, the Pell case has polarised and transfixed the nation, and in light of the High Court ruling there is now opportunity for reflection.
ABC editorial policies make very clear that it is the job of the public broadcaster's journalists to report "without fear or favour, even when that might be uncomfortable or unpopular".
Cardinal George Pell himself told the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse: "My own position is that you never disbelieve a complaint. But then it has to be assessed to see just whether it is valid and true and plausible. But the starting point must never be that they are disbelieved, that the allegations are taken very seriously and examined."
That is what ABC journalists have been doing and will continue to do.
The Herald Sun first reported that there was a police investigation into Cardinal Pell, but it was the ABC's Louise Milligan who met the former choirboy at the centre of the now quashed case against Cardinal Pell and it was Milligan who found and interviewed the family of the second alleged victim, who had died of a heroin overdose.
This was the most senior Catholic figure in Australia, the third most powerful man in the Vatican, in a church already rocked by a staggering number of historic child sexual abuse accusations.
It was unquestionably a legitimate story, one that had to be pursued.
And for Louise, a multi-award-winning journalist, it was the toughest assignment of her career and certainly one of the saddest.
In its decision to quash the convictions against Cardinal Pell, the High Court was largely silent on the veracity of the key witness, one of the teenage choir boys, whose identity has continued to be closely protected.
A witness who Victorian Police, the Department of Public Prosecutions, a jury and two out of three Court of Appeal judges in Victoria found convincing.
Which is why some are interpreting the judgement as such a rebuke of that state's judiciary and police.
In ordering the release of Cardinal Pell, the High Court found that the evidence did not meet the required standard of proof and there was "a significant risk that an innocent person has been convicted".
Taking into account the testimony of witnesses who said Cardinal Pell wouldn't have had the opportunity to commit the offences, the judges ruled unanimously "that the jury, acting rationally on the whole of the evidence, ought to have entertained a doubt as to the applicant's guilt".
There's no question the High Court decision unequivocally ends the legal saga.
It can't assuage the pain and suffering of those most closely involved.
The judgement summary was published online on ABC News Digital and read out loud by news presenter Joe O'Brien on the ABC News Channel.
Not some of it — all of it.
There was rolling coverage of the 78-year-old leaving Barwon prison, ending more than 400 days of imprisonment.
Cardinal Pell's entire statement was also published and read aloud.
"I have consistently maintained my innocence while suffering from a serious injustice," ABC audiences heard.
The Cardinal also said: "The only basis for long-term healing is truth and the only basis for justice is truth, because justice means truth for all."
The former choirboy at the centre of the quashed case said he respected and accepted the court's decision.
In a powerful public statement he said he understood "why criminal cases must be proven beyond all reasonable doubt."
He went on to say: "No one wants to live in a society where people can be imprisoned without due and proper processes. This is a basic civil liberty. But the price we pay for weighting the system in favour of the accused is that many sexual offences against children go unpunished."
This case is finished, but many legal observers expect civil action may follow and the Federal Attorney-General has indicated that he wanted to release previously redacted pages dealing with Cardinal Pell's evidence to the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse.
"My strong preference is to have as much of the information that has been redacted tabled with less redaction," Mr Porter told reporters.
Reporting on these matters won't be a witch-hunt either.
It will be responsible public-interest journalism.
Craig McMurtrie has been a journalist for four decades and is the ABC's editorial director.
The ABC makes this commitment
.....the starting point must never be that (sexual abuse complainants) are disbelieved.....the allegations (must be) taken very seriously and examined.
That is what ABC journalists have been doing and will continue to do.
Ask Kathy Sherriff.