Times are strange when the grave functions of a royal commission are usurped by comedians. But that bizarre development has come to pass. Shortly after the enquiry into child abuse ruled that Cardinal George Pell could stay in Rome, airwaves were abuzz with the sound of a hectoring ditty – “Come Home Cardinal Pell” – orchestrated by a clique that tells jokes for a living. It was promptly taken up by a range of media groups bent on unpicking the commission’s ruling, if not its authority.
Victims, advocates, media figures – typically ABC and Fairfax types – and others had long called for a royal commission into child abuse before Julia Gillard delivered it in 2012. Time and again, they claimed “only an enquiry equipped with the powers and resources of a royal commission will ever get to the bottom of this scourge”, or something to that effect. The ABC in particular did the utmost to bring it about. Having got their wish, most of them lavished praise on Gillard, and embraced the terms of reference with open arms. Then things moved on.
Now it seems that even an all-powerful commission isn’t up to the job, at least when that job is to wreak destruction on Cardinal Pell.
On February 8, following set procedure and due process, Commission Chair Justice Peter McClellan considered the Cardinal’s application to be excused from returning to give evidence in person on health grounds. Weighing up submissions from counsel and a report from the treating cardiologist, the judge held “it is apparent from the medical report that in the case of Cardinal Pell there is a risk to his health if he undertook such travel at the present time”. The testimony will be given by video-link from Rome instead. Evidently the Cardinal, 74 years of age, has hypertension and heart disease complicated by a previous myocardial infarction, or heart attack.
In truth the ruling was nothing more than routine. Cardinal Pell is only called as a witness, not “a person of interest” facing the prospect of criminal charges. Around 50 commission witnesses have previously given evidence by video-link, a widely accepted and frequently used technology across the legal system.
And that seemed to be that, except the royal commission turned out to have less than full authority on the matter. The Comedy Commission was yet to be heard from.
Enter Channel Ten’s The Project, a talk show featuring identities, mostly comedians, sitting around a desk prattling on current affairs from a Luvvie Left perspective. On the evening of 16 February, the three hosts were Fairfax columnist Waleed Aly, who, a bio points out, “has tackled comedy as both a writer and presenter for SBS’s Salam Café”; the “comedian, actor, radio and television presenter” Peter Helliar; “television presenter” Carrie Bickmore; and Steve Price. The program’s highlight was a video of the hectoring ditty by “comedian, actor, writer, and musician” Tim Minchin.
Bearing an expression of blind hatred, Minchin belted out a menacing tune that poured scorn on the Cardinal’s heart condition, demanding that he return forthwith. Along the way Pell is vilified as “scum”, a “pompous buffoon”, and a “coward” amongst other things. Minchin seemed to relish the role of chief clown prosecutor. Back on The Project desk, there was wide-eyed approval of this effort from all but Price, who called it “disgusting”. Before long, excerpts of the video were running on commercial and ABC television bulletins, and across online media. True to form, a Sydney Morning Herald headline claimed the song “packs a punch” while the ABC declared it an “overnight hit”.
Minchin’s diatribe succeeded as an anthem for the Pell haters because it fed directly into their particular conspiracy theory. In tone and language, it assumes Pell is guilty of some heinous deed, the nature of which is unspecified, and everything he says is lies. At the same time, it was a peremptory slap down of Justice McClellan, who clearly lacks the qualities of a comedian when it comes to sizing up criminals and liars.
So the comedy commission took matters into its own hands. “Comedian and television and radio personality” Meshel Laurie, a regular on The Project, co-hosts the morning radio show Matt & Meshel with “radio presenter and comedian” Matt Tilley. Having got Minchin’s agreement to “donate” the proceeds from online downloads of his song, she and another member of The Project family, “television presenter” and singer Gorgi Coghlan, launched a crowd-funding drive for victims hoping to be in Rome for Cardinal Pell’s testimony. They raised over $200,000 to set up, in some respects, a branch office of the Royal Commission in Italy. And all without official approval from the duly constituted body itself, which scrambled to find a suitable venue for this arrangement.
While victims and their advocates claim “eyeballing” Cardinal Pell is essential to their rehabilitation, such access was used on previous occasions to jeer, heckle and wave scurrilous placards at him. There is every possibility this will happen again. The comedy coup was a bizarre episode, but it was made possible by a long-running campaign on the part of victim groups and their media allies to strip the Cardinal of his rights and dignity, to make him a pantomime villain. Their purpose is to send the Royal Commission a pre-emptive message: only the strongest condemnation of this man will be acceptable. Let the facts be damned.