Stories of corruption in high places have always been a good drawcard for readers of the news media and it is no surprise that many journalists have a strong appetite for such fare. And because such corruption is usually well covered up, a form of journalistic investigation has emerged to expose it, in which reporters adopt the same kind of forensic techniques as police detectives. Journalists who do this also persuade their employers to give them far more time to pursue their research than is usual in the daily news cycle.
The great American tradition of investigative journalism goes back to the early twentieth century when the radical ‘muckrakers’ Lincoln Steffens and Upton Sinclair exposed corrupt practices by corporations, government and political parties. In the 1970s, the investigations of Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein of the Washington Post forced the resignation of President Richard Nixon and, in the process, turned them into celebrities and authors of best-selling books. Many Australian journalists, too, have seen this approach to the job as their path to glory.
However, at the ABC today, these ideas and practices are now largely out of control. Editorial oversight of the stories investigative journalists pursue and the quality of the evidence they gather is conspicuous by its absence. As readers of All the President’s Men well know, the investigations by Woodward and Bernstein were closely monitored at every stage of their research and writing by the Post’s executive editor Ben Bradlee. At the ABC, there is no one with that degree of authority or expertise to control what journalists do.
The proof of this is the recent career of Louise Milligan, who calls herself an investigate journalist and who has made it her ambition to destroy the reputations and careers of no less than three prominent Australian men: the leading figure of the Catholic Church, Cardinal George Pell, the Attorney-General in the Morrison government, Christian Porter, and most recently, Prime Minister Scott Morrison himself.
However, as I show in detail at several stages of my book The Persecution of George Pell, Milligan’s own practice of journalism leaves a lot to be desired. In her pursuit of Cardinal Pell, she was clearly out of her depth in her attempt to apply investigative journalism techniques to accusations of child sexual abuse. Her work was riddled with errors, she invented some facts, and she covered up others that told against her version of events.
One example: Several of the characters she quoted making claims of child sexual abuse against Pell had criminal backgrounds and were clearly unreliable witnesses. However, to shore up the case in her book Cardinal, Milligan portrayed Pell’s principal accuser, Witness J, the choirboy who claims Pell sexually assaulted him in St Patrick’s Cathedral, as a cleanskin: “he hasn’t had trouble with the law … he is a pillar of his community”, she wrote. Yet at the committal hearings in the Melbourne Magistrate’s Court in March 2018, Pell’s lawyer Robert Richter made Witness J admit he had warrants outstanding from the Victorian Sheriff’s Office of no less than $10,000, which he was paying off at the time. Now, you don’t accumulate debts like this from unpaid parking fines or speeding tickets. You need more than misdemeanors to rack up a tally this big. A real investigative journalist would have found out what offences Pell’s accuser had committed and not deceived her readers about the real trouble he had with the law.
One more example: One of Milligan’s principal sources, who claimed Pell’s alleged abuse of Witness J’s choirboy friend turned the latter into a heroin addict, was the father of that friend. Assuring readers the father was a reliable informant, Milligan described him as “an honorary probation officer”. However, this father was well-known in certain circles in Melbourne for other skills. In the 1990s, while the son was attending the posh St Kevin’s College in Toorak and singing in St Patrick’s Cathedral choir, the father, under the pseudonym of “Master Joe”, was a performer in the city at bondage and discipline sex clubs. He was also registered as proprietor of a sex toy shop in Pascoe Vale, and later had a business in regional Victoria with a woman providing bondage and sadomasochistic services. Rather than sex in the priests’ sacristy being the cause of the boy’s descent into heroin addiction, the most obvious candidate for his desire to blot out his world was his discovery of his father’s sordid occupation. Milligan mentions none of this in her book or her broadcasts. This omission is telling about both her skills and the quality of her journalism. If she did not know about Master Joe, her investigative skills are virtually non-existent since several other journalists in Melbourne at the time of Pell’s trial knew and could have told her. Or if she did find out about Master Joe but deliberately omitted him from her story, she is guilty of airbrushing the truth to avoid spoiling her case against Pell.
There are plenty of other similar examples detailed in my book.
One of Milligan’s most distasteful characteristics, which the ABC makes little attempt to control, is her obsession with publicly defending herself on Twitter. She makes many statements on the social media platform about her ABC reports without running them by any editor, or getting them legalled. She is free to say what she likes about her work for the corporation. This was on display in May when Christian Porter reached an agreement with the ABC’s legal advisers following his defamation suit against Milligan and the corporation for identifying him as the rapist of a schoolgirl when he was seventeen. There had been no credible evidence produced against Porter in this case. All that existed were written notes by a deceased woman who suffered bipolar disorder and consequent false memories, who provided no corroboration for her claims, and who, before she committed suicide, told police she wanted to withdraw the rape accusation. Under the agreement that emerged from the defamation case, the ABC paid Porter’s legal counsel $100,000 in costs and said:
On 26 February 2021, the ABC published an article by Louise Milligan. That article was about a letter to the Prime Minister containing allegations against a senior cabinet minister. Although he was not named, the article was about the Attorney-General Christian Porter. The ABC did not intend to suggest that Mr Porter had committed the criminal offences alleged … However, both parties accept that some readers misinterpreted the article as an accusation of guilt against Mr Porter. That reading, which was not intended by the ABC, is regretted.
However, as soon as this agreement was signed, Milligan tweeted that her story had been right all along:
“Christian Porter has discontinued his case. The ABC will pay him no damages. I stand by my journalism.”
Moreover, one of the conditions of their agreement was that parts of the ABC’s legal defence, which its legal advisers conceded contained “scandalous material”, were not to be publicised and were to be removed from the court files. Nonetheless, Milligan stated on Twitter that she still hoped these parts of the corporation’s document would be made public. Porter’s lawyer, Rebekah Giles, responded, saying the ABC had agreed to never release the information contained in the legal defence. Giles said:
It is astonishing that Ms Milligan and other employees of the ABC have now seen fit to publish statements inconsistent with the settlement that they themselves personally agreed to. Further, the suggestion by Ms Milligan that she wants the defence to be released when she has (apparently in good faith) agreed to it being removed from the court file.
The attempt by Four Corners and Milligan to undermine the reputation of Scott Morrison has even less connection with reality than the accusations against Porter. There was nothing new about the story Milligan chose to do this: no discovery by her of previously unknown documents or witnesses, no good or timely reason to revive it. The story has been floating around online newssheets, social media and anonymous internet commentary for more than eighteen months. It first appeared in the Guardian Australia in October 2019. The online site wrote that the PM’s wife Jenny had once employed a friend of hers at Kirribilli House to look after her children. At that time, the friend’s husband had been posting a series of Tweets supporting the mad conspiracy theories of the right-wing American QAnon movement. These theories claimed that Donald Trump’s presidency was under attack from a powerful “deep state” movement, which protected various satanic paedophile rings whose ultimate aim was to take over the world. In 2019, the FBI identified QAnon and groups based on similarly bizarre conspiracy theories as potential domestic terrorist threats. There were later allegations that QAnon followers were among the rioters on the Capitol in Washington in January 2021.
The Guardian article admitted that the employment of Jenny Morrison’s friend involved no political or advisory role, and there was no suggestion that her friend’s husband had influenced, or even spoken to, the Prime Minister about these views. However, other reporters were less scrupulous. Soon after the Guardian story appeared, David Hardaker, a former ABC journalist on Four Corners and 7.30 Report but then writing for the online news sheet Crikey, claimed this so-called connection with QAnon posed “a potential security threat” to Australia. Hardaker identified Jenny Morrison’s friend as Lynelle Stewart and named her husband Tim Stewart as the author of the tweets.
Hardaker could only offer one connection between QAnon and Morrison. Hardaker said Tim Stewart’s tweets depicted elaborate ceremonies where children were prepared for sacrifice by groups of Satan worshipers. Stewart referred to this as “Luciferian” or satanic “ritual abuse”. The connection with Morrison supposedly occurred on October 22 2018 when, in response to a recommendation by the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, Morrison made his public apology to victims. He said: “The crimes of ritual sexual abuse happened in schools, churches, youth groups, scout troops, orphanages, foster homes, sporting clubs, group homes, charities, and in family homes as well.” Hardaker claimed Morrison’s use of the word “ritual” revealed his acceptance of the QAnon theory. Hardaker wrote:
“Ritual sexual abuse”? This was not a phrase used by the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sex Abuse — yet it had made its way the PM’s historic address to the nation.
This one use of the word “ritual” was all he had to go on. But journalist Samantha Maiden wrote in news.com.au that others had followed this interpretation:
It follows widespread claims online that there was some significance to the Prime Minister referring to “ritual” sex abuse in a speech on institutional sex abuse. The use of the term “ritual” is often deployed by QAnon supporters in the context of their belief that the world has been overtaken by Satan-worshipping paedophiles.
In Louise Milligan’s story on Four Corners on June 14, which largely repeats the version of events given by Hardaker, she interviewed Michael Salter, a criminologist at the University of New South Wales, who also endorsed the claim that the term “ritual” was not in public usage when Morrison made his 2018 apology and that the term must come from QAnon’s Australian supporters.
However, any connection between Morrison’s speech and QAnon’s theories is absurd. Morrison did not need help from Tim Stewart or anyone else to use the term “ritual”. Contrary to the claims by Hardaker and Salter, the concept of ritual child abuse was part of the investigations of the Royal Commission. In its various volumes, the Commission used the term “ritual” several times in relation to child abuse activities. In the executive summary of its Final Report in 2017, it summarised:
In private sessions and case studies we heard about children experiencing sexual abuse in places of worship or related locations such as a confessional, a priest’s residence or a ritual bathhouse … We also heard that some children experienced sexual abuse that involved the use of religious rituals, symbols or language.
Two of the major witnesses at its hearings, Gordon Hill and Cathy Kezelman, both claimed to have been sexually abused as children during religious rituals. Some of the bizarre assaults Hill told the Commission he suffered at the hands of priests and nuns at St Joseph’s orphanage at Ballarat, were supposedly conducted in a satanically decorated “dungeon”. Kezelman claimed she had “recovered memories” of her childhood when she was subject to “satanic sexual rituals” by her father and other satanic abusers in a cave near Brisbane. Kezelman wrote a book, Innocence Revisited, recounting all this in lurid detail. Kezelman was taken seriously by the Royal Commission and it appointed her to write counselling guidelines for staff at sexual assault clinics. In other words, “ritual” was not a rare term in 2018 and no connection to QAnon follows from Morrison’s use of it.
It should be said that not everyone at the ABC accepted the “ritual” connection. After he saw a rough-cut draft of Milligan’s story, news director Gaven Morris was concerned enough to send it up to managing director David Anderson for appraisal. Anderson sent the draft back to Four Corners saying it needed “more work”. Before the story was broadcast, Paul Barry, the presenter of the ABC’s Media Watch program, was one of those who observed that the attempt to connect Morrison to QAnon through his use of the term “ritual” was barely credible. Barry told his viewers:
Now, as proof of influence over the PM, you may think that is not super strong. And while Milligan is no doubt aiming to firm up any evidence, some in ABC editorial management still regard it as thin.
However, the ABC’s news director and managing director both proved incapable of diverting Milligan from her objective. They saw very little of the “more work” they told her to do. She went ahead and in the story broadcast on June 14 treated the feeble claim about “ritual” as if it was somehow proof of Morrison’s guilt. Management had revealed itself powerless to stop her.
In the hands of some of the most celebrated people who call themselves investigative journalists today, fanciful rubbish of this kind is what now passes as evidence for media attacks on political targets. In other words, “corruption in high places” is a phrase that now applies as much to the corporations of today’s news media as to the worst of the institutions that the once great tradition of investigative journalism originally set out to expose.
Keith Windschuttle is Quadrant’s editor