In days of old, when most journalists were reporters, a degree of scepticism prevailed with respect to claims by individuals. Nowadays, the increasing number of journalists who regard themselves as activists has led to a situation where large sections of the media believe what they want to believe — and campaign accordingly.
Take CNN presenter Don Lemon, who is something of a left-wing activist, for example. He was interviewed by CNN newsroom anchor Brianna Keilar earlier this week about Oprah Winfrey’s interview on CBS with the Duke and Duchess of Sussex — commonly known as Harry and Meghan.
The most reported part of an explosive interview occurred when Meghan linked her pregnancy with Archie to being told by an unnamed official at The Palace that Archie “won’t be given security, he’s not going to be given a title and also concerns and conversations about how dark his skin might be when he’s born”.
All this was enough for Lemon to assert that the “whole institution” of the royal family “is built on a racist structure”. He rejected the claim “we haven’t heard from the other side” since “that one side, at this point, rings very true”.
Lemon continued: “And if you said ‘Oh, this baby is going to be a beautiful brown baby with red hair, I can’t wait to see it’ — that’s a different reaction than: ‘Oh, my dear, what colour is his skin? Is he going to be too dark?’, Two different things — so I think the difference is the reaction.”
And therein lies the problem. Lemon does not know what was said about Archie’s skin colour. Or, indeed, if anything was said. He simply believes what Meghan reported she had been told by her husband. Lemon does so because he wants to believe Meghan’s story. Harry, for his part, declined to provide any details beyond telling Winfrey later that it was neither the Queen nor Prince Philip who made the (alleged) comment. This left open a large field of possible (alleged) royal offenders.
This interview has done considerable reputational damage to the royal family — despite the fact that Meghan’s comment concerning Archie’s lack of a title was simply wrong. Under the Letters Patent, issued by King George V in 1917, he is not entitled to be called “Prince Archie” until Prince Charles becomes sovereign. Moreover, Meghan gave no consideration to the expense of the British government involved in providing security to members of the royal family who have decided to live overseas.
Lemon was not alone in accepting the claims of Meghan and Harry without question. Forbes’ Tom Nunan commented it was “a tremendously compelling interview”. In The New Yorker, Amy Davidson Sorkin was of a similar view, stating that “Meghan’s account was compelling and sad”.
Sure, the interview was compelling to the two magazine writers. But this does not mean that Meghan’s account was necessarily true.
At this stage, it is impossible to determine who is telling the truth in the latest palace saga. Which does not necessarily mean that anyone is lying. Some people have bad memories, others exaggerate, while some are delusional in that they have clear “recollections” of events that never happened. Memory is a very fallible thing. That’s why it is dangerous to believe an accusation without forensic or independent witness evidence.
There are some activist journalists who want to believe the allegations against Attorney-General Christian Porter, who has been accused of raping a 16-year-old when he was 17 in 1988. Porter has denied the claims and the complainant withdrew her claim in a statement to NSW Police before she tragically died.
It is understandable why some friends of the deceased woman want to pursue the issue. But journalists should refrain from taking activist stances in a historical case where there is no evidence to support the allegation.
It was the same with Cardinal George Pell who was charged by Victoria Police with 26 counts of child sexual abuse with respect to nine individuals. All were either dropped by the Victorian Director of Public Prosecutions, thrown out by a magistrate, or quashed by the High Court.
The case against Pell was driven by a media pile-on, not dissimilar to that experienced by Porter in recent times. Most prominent in the campaign was ABC journalist Louise Milligan in her numerous media reports on the case, as well as in her 2017 book Cardinal. Milligan constantly stated that the complainant in the Pell case was “compelling”.
The insistence by some activists that the evidence against Pell was “compelling” has continued — despite the fact that between 10 and two jurors in the first trial (a mistrial) did not agree, and nor did the dissenting judge, Justice Mark Weinberg, in the Victorian Court of Appeal. All of them saw the complainant give evidence via video link.
During the hearings of Pell v The Queen in the High Court, a telling exchange took place between Justice Virginia Bell and Victorian DPP Kerri Judd QC. Bell commented on the fact that, in his closing address to the jury, the crown prosecutor had invited jury members to consider the complainant as compelling because of his demeanour in answering two questions.
Bell made the point that the demeanour in question — namely, that the complainant paused and closed his eyes before answering — was inconsequential. The point was that such an action could be consistent with telling the truth or making up a story. Judd’s response was deeply unconvincing.
The High Court’s unanimous decision in Pell v The Queen is a warning against adopting subjective views to reach conclusions about the validity of testimony. Here, the seven judges followed the High Court precedents of M v The Queen (1994) and the civil case of Fox v Percy (2003) where the majority comprised Chief Justice Gleeson and Justices Kirby and Gummow.
Lemon wants to believe Meghan because he wants to believe her and regards her as truthful. Such an approach can be misleading in the public debate. In criminal cases, it can lead to dreadful injustice.