ABC’s groupthink on George Pell a sin against journalism

19 April 2020

5.3 MINS

By Greg Sheridan, The Australian.

Editor’s Note: Greg Sheridan considers the utterly shocking bias of the ABC, as well as the disregard of the Victorian Premier for the High Court’s unanimous verdict. This gross misuse of state power in persistently swaying public opinion against an innocent man, faced with hideous false allegations, must end.
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I believe Victorian Premier Dan Andrews has made one of the most irresponsible statements by a premier in modern political history. And the ABC has become a relentless behemoth of unaccountable and vindictive power that persecutes designated enemies in a grievously unfair and unprofessional way.

Its campaigns against its enemies have a whiff of the Red Guards in China’s Cultural Revolution.

Child sex abuse by Catholic priests and brothers is the most appalling thing I have ever known about the Catholic Church. It is right that the church bear great criticism for this and that guilty men be tried and punished.

When historical abuse mostly occurred, such behaviour, tragically, was widespread and little understood. Nonetheless nothing excuses the behaviour of the abusers or those who covered up.

In a small number of cases, innocent people have been accused. Forces that hate the church on other grounds have misused historic crimes to prosecute their agenda.

Andrews, even under questioning from this column, has refused to say he respects the High Court’s decision. Two days after Pell’s unanimous acquittal, Andrews said:

“There’s been a decision and I don’t want to find myself in contempt of the High Court so I won’t make any comments about that.”

I took that to mean that Andrews disagreed strongly with the court’s decision but could not say so publicly, or he would be in contempt. That is the way many people took it and it seems the plain meaning in the English language.

Andrews’s office disputes this, and on Wednesday said he “has not reflected on the High Court, nor would he”.

Under a reasonable interpretation of Andrews’s remarks, their effect is to delegitimise the High Court’s decision, in effect to set the Victorian judicial system against the Australian judicial system. Andrews’s office says that was not his intent and I accept that.

Workers cover graffiti at St Patrick’s Cathedral in Melbourne.

However, the shocking ambiguity, at best, of his remarks, coupled with his wilful refusal to say he respected the court’s decision, I believe qualify them as some of the most irresponsible remarks made by a modern premier. In more than 40 years of journalism, I can recall no premier making remarks that could be interpreted as challenging the High Court in a criminal matter.

It reinforces the utterly destructive idea that courts are only to be respected when they convict people we regard as villains, that political sentiment is more important than judicial process. I think Andrews’s remarks could well have contributed to the acts of anti-Catholic vandalism in Melbourne.

Tom Wolfe provided a brilliant fictional account of a wickedly politicised prosecution in The Bonfire of the Vanities, with its stylised “perp walk” to humiliate a defendant and gain maximum publicity. The book ends with an honest Jewish judge throwing the case out and saying:

“What makes you think you can come before the bench waving the banner of community pressure? The law is not for the few or the many…”

The ABC has been rightly criticised for its relentlessly one-sided and unfair coverage of Pell. No human being could possibly imagine the ABC lived up to the basic edicts of professional journalism, or behaved fairly. I want to make a slightly different point, one I hope the leadership of the ABC will at least consider and engage with.

The ABC leadership should take stock of its sheer power and the mind-numbing disparity in power which its $1bn of annual government money gives it in a confrontation with anyone it designates an enemy of the people.

It should understand the multiplying, almost exponential, intimidating effect of its tendency to project the same message across all its platforms, including the social media platforms of its journalists and its comedy and satire programs. No individual can withstand a full herd assault by the ABC. No one should have to. Pell was not only abused and unfairly reported in ABC news and current affairs. The ABC featured favourites like Tim Minchin singing Come Home Cardinal Pell, which included the line: “I think you’re scum.”

Does no one in the ABC anywhere have the slightest misgiving about this? Can anyone the ABC hates ever get a fair trial? Four Corners and the 7.30 Report devoted whole programs to vilifying Pell. The allegations they used were either dismissed or lacked sufficient evidence to come to court, despite the overwhelming desire of the Victorian system to prosecute Pell. There is an acknowledgment of this on the programs’ websites, but viewers who don’t read the websites have not been informed that the slander of Pell was wrong.

Louise Milligan, an ABC journalist, wrote a book damning Pell. It too was based in part on allegations now dismissed in court. Yet she was used on the ABC as though she were an impartial reporter. Even worse, because she was an ABC employee, the ABC itself never hosted a serious critical evaluation of the book.

Gerard Henderson wrote powerful critiques of Milligan’s book, saying there were factual errors and asking her how much investigation she did before accepting allegations as fact, and how she could reconstruct, verbatim, decades-old conversations from one-sided sources.

If the ABC was behaving professionally, it would have invited Henderson on to make his critique there. But the ABC is a herd of independent minds. They never seriously disagree and never criticise each other by name, though they criticise everyone else by name. Milligan’s book was never searchingly critiqued on the ABC. Given the massive power of the ABC, this is an abuse of power.

Milligan even tweeted that Henderson was a “vile bully” and guilty of “defending pedophiles”.

No one at the ABC disagreed with her publicly or had any objection. I don’t think I could write that about someone just because they disagreed with me. The ABC must look at the cumulative effect of all this.

As the court cases proceeded, David Marr, a fine writer and a gifted journalist but a profoundly committed enemy of Pell, was one of the ABC’s chief commentators.

Four men, Greg Craven, Frank Brennan, Gerard Henderson and Andrew Bolt, consistently questioned whether the evidence against Pell could sustain a conviction. They were routinely vilified (especially Bolt, who must be the bravest man in Australia).


Yet here’s the thing. Their assessment of the legal matters was right. Everyone the ABC relied on, and all the ABC staff journalists who led their coverage, were wrong. This is an acceptable performance? That’s the diversity and contest of views $1bn buys?

I don’t criticise ABC journalists for getting the odd thing wrong. God knows I get plenty wrong. I do criticise them for acting with so much irresponsibility, so much herd hostility towards one individual, for failing to provide any semblance of balance (except for the stylised environment of a few panel shows where the odd dissident participates). I criticise them for never criticising each other, while criticising everyone else, and making it impossible for outsiders to criticise them on the ABC itself.

This is an irresponsible, vicious, bullying misuse of state power. It’s not brave. It’s wrong.


Greg Sheridan, The Australian‘s foreign editor, is one of the nation’s most influential national security commentators, who is active across television and radio and also writes extensively on culture. He has written seven books. His latest, God is Good for You: A Defence of Christianity in Troubled Times, is a passionate defence of religious belief in a secular age. Before that, When We Were Young and Foolish was an entertaining memoir of culture, politics and journalism. As foreign editor, he specialises in Asia. He has interviewed Presidents and Prime Ministers across the world.

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