March 9th 2002

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Articles from this issue:

The Hollingworth Affair

Federal Cabinet decision on cloning

Media putsch overwhelms Governor-General

Will CHOGM bite the bullet, oust Mugabe?

Straws in the Wind: Rumpole arising

Environment: National parks are an unacceptable fire risk

Agriculture: Bar lowered on quarantine once again

Media: Crude but effective

Environmental optimism (letter)

Bias: in the eye of the beholder (letter)

Economics: Privatisation: the promise and the reality

Comment: Trust: a commodity in short supply

Culture: How the media exploits the US$150 billion American youth market

ASIA: WTO entry will put pressure on China-Taiwan ties

Books promotion page

Media: Crude but effective

by John Styles

News Weekly, March 9, 2002

Crude but effective

Where was all that journalistic cynicism and scepticism when the Governor-General needed it? If it had been alleged that Dr Peter Hollingworth, in the guise of an illegal arrival, had been involved in a little child lip sewing, he could have counted on that scepticism - heaps of it. More than that, he could have watched with satisfaction as his enthusiastic journalist-defenders tracked down his accusers and persecuted them.

But Dr Hollingworth - or as Melbourne Age editor Michael Gawenda called him, Hollingsworth - is an anglo-Christian - a cultural category totally lacking in positive attributes for a significant section of the Australian journalistic class.

There is also the fact that Dr Hollingworth occupies an office that is not respected by left-liberal journalists; and he was appointed to that office by a Prime Minister those journalists despise. Those dynamics brought into play an entirely different set of journalistic standards. But the left has always been extremely flexible in waging its campaigns and advancing its causes.

The trial of Peter Hollingworth by the Australian media, required a total suspension of journalistic scepticism and an acceptance at face value anything the G-G's critics offered. Journalistic interviews became "evidence". Assertions were presented as facts. The motives of Hollingworth's accusers were rarely, if ever, considered. And anyone who contradicted the prevailing "line" was ignored.

And yet all the way along, as they built their "case", one little disclaimer, a minor concession to the ideal of journalistic integrity, kept appearing in stories, like the tiny print with the asterisk at the bottom of a used car advertisement: of course, Dr Hollingworth hasn't committed a crime, they said. You would never have known it.

The orchestrated nature of the attack on the Governor-General, and the media hand in it from the beginning, was revealed by the woman who accelerated the campaign against him last December.

The media-savvy and pervasive Hetty Johnston, a former Democrats leader in Queensland and now of the People's Alliance Against Child Sexual Abuse, has provided much copy for the media assault on Hollingworth. On ABC Radio National (February 21), Johnston revealed that when she saw some of the claims about Peter Hollingworth starting to appear in the Brisbane Courier-Mail, she contacted the journalist.

"I rang the journalist - Amanda Gearing from the Courier-Mail - and she filled me in on the details - daily. She was brilliant, absolutely brilliant. And, well, we waited. It became clearer and clearer as it went on that this was a call that had to be made - for the resignation of the Governor-General …".

The Channel 9 Sunday program (February 17) relaunched the campaign against Hollingworth. Sunday reporter, John Lyons, told ABC radio:

"We presented what we believed was a watertight case which we forensically researched, spent five weeks and probably made 150 phone calls."

Yet that "watertight" case sprung a leak just two days after the first program aired. The Sunday report featured an interview with Brisbane businessman Alec Spencer who described a meeting with Archbishop Hollingworth. Spencer claims to have been abused at an Anglican orphanage when he was a child. He also described a 1999 meeting with Archbishop Hollingworth at which the Archbishop allegedly said that people who made complaints of abuse were often "misfits and deviants".

Spencer repeated the claim on ABC's Lateline (Monday, February 18). But Lateline host Tony Jones asked a question John Lyons had not.

TONY JONES: Now, were there other people present at this meeting who could corroborate that's what was said?

ALEC SPENCER: Yes, there was. This meeting was specifically with the Queensland Crimes Commissioner, and it was in reference to a request by the Crimes Commissioner for cooperation with regards to institutionalised abuse.

TONY JONES: So you're saying the Crimes Commissioner would have heard the references to deviants and misfits being responsible for these complaints?

ALEC SPENCER: Absolutely.

The following night, Lateline asked Crime Commissioner Tim Carmody about the meeting.

TONY JONES: Tim Carmody, do you recall this meeting with the Archbishop Hollingworth that Alec Spencer is referring to?

TIM CARMODY: Yes, I do, Tony. I remember the meeting, it was April 1999. I convened that.

TONY JONES: You convened the meeting. Do you have knowledge that fits with what Alec Spencer is telling us. I mean, can you confirm whether or not Archbishop Hollingworth used the term "misfits and deviants" to describe people of sexual abuse?

TIM CARMODY: No, Tony, I can't confirm that or deny it. My recollection doesn't allow me to do either of those things. I don't remember any of the words that Mr Spencer attributed to the Governor-General being spoken by anybody, but that's not to say that they weren't. My memory on the matter's intractably neutral unfortunately.

So much for the "forensic" nature of the Sunday investigation.

On ABC TV's Australian Story [18 February], Peter Hollingworth commented on the Sunday program:

"I watched this program initially with a sense of horror that they could be saying these things about me, until I started to analyse the way the whole thing had been pieced together, I would suggest that anybody should do a content analysis of how that whole program was put together. It was, to me, a disgrace."

"Pieced together" is a very good way to describe another interview in the Sunday program. In what purported to be one continuous sequence, shots of John Lyons show the reporter with his suit coat on, then his suit coat off, his suit coat on, then his suit coat off again. Sure, they cut to tighten things up; but this appeared to be a major editing exercise. Presumably the answers matched the questions, but as you watched that interview there was no way of being sure.

It is not necessary to believe that Peter Hollingworth's response as Archbishop of Brisbane to allegations of child abuse within the Anglican Church was either adequate or appropriate to see that something else is going on here. The sustained media attack on Peter Hollingworth has little to do with high-minded investigative journalism. It is more about character assassination. Very crude, but extremely effective.

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