At the end of November, the 2020 Walkley Awards for journalism gave their highest accolades to two of the most derogatory products of the decade-long witch hunt against Cardinal George Pell. The ABC program Revelation by Sarah Ferguson and Tony Jones won the Walkley Documentary Award and Lucie Morris-Marr’s Fallen won the Walkley Book Award.
Yet in all the praise the Walkley judges heaped on both products—“broke new ground”, “the sheer quality of the writing”—none of them mentioned the embarrassing fact that, according to the High Court judgment that unanimously acquitted Pell, the award winners got their big story wrong. Nor was there any mention that the winners helped create a public environment that put an innocent man in jail.
Most tellingly, there was no recognition that the biggest dupes in the whole affair were the winners themselves. As Chapter Seven of my new book The Persecution of George Pell argues in detail, the reality was that, in order to trash Pell’s public reputation, Victoria Police and the lawyers for the complainants (the latter with a palpable vested interest in winning cases for their firms—“no win, no charge”) led journalists by the nose all the way.
One of the things that stood out through Pell’s great ordeal was his composure and dignity in the face of all this. But what would happen if a reporter had to face the baying mob herself? Well, as it happens, Lucie Morris-Marr copped some very mild criticism of her own and did not handle it very well. In fact, she fell to pieces.
In Fallen, Morris-Marr deploys much the same structural approach as a previous winner of the Get Pell Stakes, Louise Milligan of the ABC. Morris-Marr recounts how she got her story, from her first assignment by Herald Sun news editor Chris Tinkler to interview victims of child sexual abuse, to what it was like to be a reporter sitting in the Melbourne courtroom when the jury for Pell’s second trial returned with its verdict of guilty.
For a reason she finds perplexing, the editorial staff at the Herald Sun do not give their newly-minted star reporter the proper respect she thinks she deserves for her “world exclusive” story that Victoria Police intend to charge Pell for offences against two choirboys in Melbourne’s St Patrick’s Cathedral. Morris-Marr’s own story then takes a surprising turn. From being a reporter who tracks down victims of pederasts, she turns into someone who is treated so badly at work that she suffers a nervous breakdown (or whatever is the current equivalent terminology) and loses her job. Hence, she not only writes about victims but, in a twist to her story worthy of Agatha Christie, she becomes a victim herself.
This all happened very quickly. Morris-Marr’s great “scoop” about the Sano Taskforce targeting Pell was published online on Friday night February 19, 2016, and as a front-page story on the Herald Sun newspaper on Saturday morning, February 20. On the Friday night the newspaper’s chief-of-staff, Paul Tatnell, invited her out for drinks to congratulate her for “the biggest story for the Herald Sun in ten years”. Chris Tinkler joined them, saying: “Well done, amazing job.”
Keith Windschuttle’s column appears in every Quadrant.
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However, the next day Morris-Marr was worried after she learned the paper intended to publish in its Sunday edition a story saying senior figures of the Catholic Church were still backing Pell. On the Monday morning Morris-Marr read to her dismay that the paper’s leading writer, Andrew Bolt, had written a critique of her claims in his weekly column, calling her work “a witch hunt” and a “smear”. The fearless female investigator suddenly developed very thin skin:
What I read shocked me to the core. He [Bolt] said my report was worse than “vicious and shameful” and the leak to the paper “stinks”. “It smells like an attempt to destroy a man without giving him a chance to defend himself,” Bolt said … Why would my newspaper throw me under the bus like this? … I had spent ten months trying to get inside what was happening around this powerful Catholic and now News Corp seemed to be turning on me.
Although she says Bolt was entitled to express his opinion, Morris-Marr also divulges that she tried to damage him by sending emails to the human resources department of News Corp headquarters in Sydney, accusing Bolt of breaking several News Corp codes of conduct.
However, her greatest worry came from a story in the Age that said Victoria Police, concerned its officers were being accused by the Catholic Church of leaking information to her, had referred her story to Victoria’s anti-corruption agency, the Independent Broad-based Anti-Corruption Commission (IBAC), for investigation. She says this meant IBAC officers could raid her home to seize notebooks or tape recordings and could question her about her sources. “If I didn’t name my sources,” she writes, “there was a chance I could be jailed for contempt.” She asked her bosses at News Corp for security protection at her Melbourne home:
Becoming increasingly exhausted, I was worried about the possibility of a raid and thought it was reasonable that News Corp send a guard to my home each night. The editors weren’t keen at first … but they did eventually agree.
After some meetings the following week between Morris-Marr, Bolt and Herald Sun editors and lawyers, she started thinking there must be someone in senior management who was actively supporting Pell. “I wanted News Corp to investigate whether anyone was compromised … By this time I had barely slept for five days.” She says she suspected that Rupert Murdoch, who she describes as a “long-time Pell admirer, who had been awarded a papal knighthood by Pope John Paul II in 1998”, might have made “a quick call to his leading commentators Down Under”. To make matters worse, she says, News Corp then emailed her at home to say the security guards were unnecessary and would be recalled, even though her bosses did not know whether IBAC planned a raid or not. “I felt terribly alone,” she says, and then shifts her mood from melodrama to paranoia:
Already depleted from producing the story, I struggled to sleep and started to further imagine the cars driving past my house had been sent by the Catholic Church or News Corp to assassinate me, or that IBAC had come to raid the house …
I had given my heart and soul in my search for the truth. I’d listened to the most horrific stories in Ballarat to try to help and understand those haunted victims without a voice; I’d worked with sensitive sources to uncover the news of the secret Pell police operation, and now I was lost at sea and had nothing firm to hold on to amid the mayhem. I was now paying a very personal price for my passionate defence of the story; I no longer knew who to trust at News Corp and I was mentally and physically exhausted. A sleeping tablet hadn’t helped. An ambulance was called.
Morris-Marr’s quasi-tragic soliloquy of the reporter-as-victim doesn’t end there. She recovered from her bout of trauma and, although the Herald Sun did not want her back, she managed to persuade the left-wing Australian website New Daily to publish her further writings about Pell’s appeal in June 2019. She also persuaded the international television network CNN to let her do some pieces to camera outside the Victorian Court of Appeal. But after what she calls “my brutal experience at the hands of News Corp”, she has a warning for anyone contemplating a career in journalism. She tells them that all reporters who work in dangerous fields like hers are potential victims too. Here is her case:
It’s only now that the effects on journalists of reporting on traumatic stories—mixed with extreme pressure and lack of sleep—are beginning to be fully recognised. Journalists, like judges, magistrates, police officers and paramedics, are not bullet proof. We are human with our own frailties. Maintaining self-care while under pressure is important. Secondary, or vicarious, trauma is a constant risk. For reporters, this is often only learnt the hard way.
There was a time when this combination of self-pity and narcissism would be laughed out of newspaper offices, and its purveyor told to go away and grow up. Today, however, a person like this can get a job reciting stories that destroy an impressive career and put a good man in jail, and then have the nerve to say: “Poor me, I lead such a hard life.” Today, the judges of media awards will sing her praises and give her prizes.
So any young journalist aspiring to get ahead in this game, especially those at the ABC or any of the former Fairfax titles, would be well advised to read Morris-Marr’s book for a first-hand account of how it can now be done.