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The Guardian - AU
The Guardian - AU
Margaret Simons

How are we to understand the pervasive journalistic arrogance of the Bruce Lehrmann imbroglio?

Brittany Higgins
Brittany Higgins and media outside court in 2022. ‘Objectivity is not an innate characteristic of journalists,’ Margaret Simmons writes. ‘Rather, it is a difficult but essential discipline. It requires some sacrifices.’ Photograph: Mick Tsikas/AAP

It’s a depressing time for those who care about the quality of journalism in this country.

In the ongoing “omnishambles” of the Lehrmann defamation case against Network Ten, we have seen most media organisations engaged in a kind of truculent mediocrity.

Confusingly, most of the journalists thought they were doing their best work. Even now they deny or fail to see their own shortcomings.

Some were well motivated. Lisa Wilkinson of Channel Ten’s The Project aimed to give voice to the voiceless – to defend the victims of sexual assault.

Others, such as the team at Channel Seven’s Spotlight, acknowledged no other imperative than that their interview with accused rapist Bruce Lehrmann should be, in words attributed to Spotlight producer Steve Jackson, “the most amazing thing on Australian TV ever”.

In pursuit of that aim the station was prepared to pay for the living costs of a credibly accused rapist and cover its conduct in entering the resulting story for a Walkley award. And that is before you get to the disputed allegations involving cocaine and “massages”.

Not under examination by Justice Michael Lee was the conduct of The Australian, but in the wider Lehrmann imbroglio, we have seen its columnist Janet Albrechtsen become a player, rather than a mere reporter. She is accused of “infecting” the head of an inquiry with bias.

And now, while accepting Lee’s finding that on the balance of probabilities Lehrmann raped Brittany Higgins, she is seriously suggesting that this young woman, the victim of a traumatising crime, should be referred to the National Anti-Corruption Commission over the money she received from the commonwealth by way of compensation.

The headline on Albrechtsen’s piece says that Lee had “put all parties in their place”. He didn’t put her in her place – but I suspect only because her conduct was not relevant to the matters he had to decide.

Ten won the case because Lee found that Lehrmann raped Higgins. But he also found that the main claim of The Project’s story – of the government erecting “roadblocks to a police investigation and a young woman forced to choose between her career and the pursuit of justice” – flew in the face of available evidence. There was no cover-up. Higgins’ boss, former minister Linda Reynolds, and Reynolds’ chief of staff Fiona Brown, encouraged Higgins to report her rape to police.

So how are we to understand this pervasive journalistic arrogance, this lack of self-awareness, this bias?

I think the best way is to draw a distinction between the kind of journalism that achieves change through revelation of facts, and that which amounts to advocacy.

Advocacy journalism is not new, nor is it likely to disappear any time soon. In the history of the profession, advocacy and partisanship are older than the ideals of comprehensive fair-mindedness that emerged with the establishment of “journals of record” in the 1800s.

But advocacy is not the most democratically useful thing about journalism, or journalists. Anyone can advocate. Anyone can be an activist. The most useful thing about journalists is that they find things out.

Some journalists, in my view, emerge comparatively well from this saga.

Samantha Maiden of, whose reporting of the Higgins rape allegations was published on the same day as The Project’s story went to air, and which won her a Gold Walkley, got a swipe from Lee for the “tone and nature” of her “leading and suggestive questions” in an interview with Higgins – including a gratuitous comment that those involved in handling the matter were “all Christians”.

Nevertheless, this was not a broadcast interview, but an exchange that only became public because of all the legal action.

News Corp settled a defamation case with Lehrmann, but did not take down Maiden’s story, which is still online.

It stands up better than the work of The Project.

While Maiden reported Higgins’ feeling that the rape became a problem to be “managed” politically, it attributed rather than adopted that claim, and did not accuse Reynolds and Brown of cover-up. Maiden reported that the evidence suggested Brown and Reynolds “had repeatedly encouraged [Higgins] to go to police”.

This is reporting, rather than advocacy.

Lee found that Higgins was an “unreliable historian” and “jumping at shadows” when it came to the cover-up allegations.

It is easy to feel sympathy for her. She was traumatised and devastated by indications that, despite her wishes, the story about her rape might be about to become public.

And, while Lee found no evidence of cover-up, it was also the case that “Ms Higgins changing her mind and wanting to pursue her complaint would have been damaging politically to the Liberal party, and various members of the government would have very much wished Ms Higgins did not change tack”.

It’s useful to remember the climate in which the Higgins allegations surfaced. It was after the Four Corners “Inside the Canberra Bubble” program, and in the same time period as the emergence of unproven historical rape allegations against Christian Porter (which he has always denied).

In this climate, it seems that “easy to believe it’s true” quickly became in the minds of some reporters “should be true” and “must be true”.

But the journalists should have known better. As Lee said: “Only someone prone to speculation and avid for scandal could view the objective facts as forming a reasonable basis to suggest the perpetuation of an inappropriate, indeed criminal, cover-up.

“To the extent there were perceived systemic issues as to avenues of complaint and support services in parliament, this may have merited a form of fact-based critique, not the publication of insufficiently scrutinised and factually misconceived conjecture.”

Reporting, or bearing witness, is a powerful thing. It changes things. Arguably it is the most powerful agent of change.

Journalists choose their topics. That too, is a powerful thing – and not inconsistent with objectivity and fair mindedness.

In the last few years, talented, hard-nosed and courageous female journalists have chosen to report on sexual assault, including in Parliament House. The result is a new field in the journalistic job of interrogating power.

Not that long ago, such allegations would likely not have been regarded as a legitimate political story. The fact that they now are is a significant political change.

But there is a difference between choosing to shine a light into particular corners and advocating for a version of the facts regardless of the evidence – failing to inquire, to check and to interrogate.

Objectivity is not an innate characteristic of journalists. Rather, it is a difficult but essential professional, intellectual and emotional discipline. It requires some sacrifices.

As we have seen in different contexts – the reporting of the Middle East – most reputable journalism outlets believe their reporters should not be signing petitions or open letters that might be understood as undermining their ability to report fairly.

Good journalists give up some rights to participate in civic life. They do this because the job of journalism, of bearing witness and of being trusted to do so, is so important.

Objectivity requires a slavishness to the facts and a preparedness to seek them out – even when they contradict one’s assumptions, convictions and wishes.

It also requires humility – surely the main characteristic shown to be wanting in so many of the journalists involved in this saga.

  • Margaret Simons is an award-winning freelance journalist and author. She is an honorary principal fellow of the Centre for Advancing Journalism and a member of the board of the Scott Trust, which owns Guardian Media Group

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