Most successful journalists are aware types. Not all, alas, are into self-awareness.
Last Saturday, ABC television investigative reporter Louise Milligan (who currently works on Four Corners) was interviewed by Jamila Rizvi for The Briefing news podcast. It was a soft discussion of the kind to be expected when one journalist interviews another about journalism. But it did have its revealing moments.
First up, Milligan declared that “one of the fabulous things about working for Four Corners is we have this rare and magical ability to make really important change”. In other words, she sees the program as a change agent that is into advocacy. Milligan claims not to be an activist. But activist journalists, of whatever gender, are change advocates.
Milligan is perhaps best known for her 2017 book Cardinal: The Rise and Fall of George Pell, which followed a 30-minute ABC TV 7.30 episode presented by her on Pell that aired on July 27, 2016.
Both were regarded by the cardinal’s supporters and opponents alike as presenting a case for the prosecution.
In 2020, Milligan’s second book, titled Witness (Hachette), was published. Its prime focus was on Pell and the author herself, although two cases of sexual assault were discussed at some length. In Witness, Milligan failed to mention that all her allegations against Pell on 7.30 or in Cardinal came to nought.
Pell was charged and convicted on five counts of historical child sexual assault – which formed the basis of Cardinal. But the conviction was overturned in a unanimous judgment of the High Court of Australia, which made the unusual statement that an innocent man may have been falsely convicted. Usually an appeals court would simply state, in such a circumstance, that guilt had not been established beyond reasonable doubt.
The remaining allegations covered on 7.30 and in Cardinal either were not proceeded with by Victoria Police, were dropped by the Victorian Director of Public Prosecutions or were abandoned by the DPP following a decision in the County Court of Victoria as to the admissibility of evidence.
In Witness, the author indicates that she does not agree with the High Court’s seven-zip decision or with the devastating forensic destruction of the prosecution’s case by Justice Mark Weinberg in his dissenting judgment in the Victorian Court of Appeal.
But Milligan has never explained how the (alleged) crimes could have taken place in a crowded public place such as St Patrick’s Cathedral in Melbourne at a solemn high mass on a Sunday.
On November 20, 2020, Milligan reported the Inside the Canberra Bubble program for Four Corners. This was essentially an attack on two ministers in the Coalition government – attorney-general Christian Porter and education minister Alan Tudge – that alleged sexual impropriety but not criminality.
Subsequently, on February 26 last year Milligan posted an article on the ABC website titled “Scott Morrison, senator and AFP told of historical rape allegations against Cabinet Minister”.
Shortly after, in the midst of widespread rumour, Porter identified himself as the anonymous minister but denied all allegations that he had raped a recently deceased woman some two decades previously.
On May 31 last year, the taxpayer-funded public broadcaster issued a statement containing the following words: “The ABC did not contend that the serious accusations (against Porter) could be substantiated to the applicable legal standard – criminal or civil.”
In other words, Milligan did not prove her case beyond reasonable doubt or even to the lower standard of guilt on the balance of probabilities.
The ABC paid Porter’s mediation costs plus its own costs for outside legal advice. Porter made no payment to the ABC.
Now, there can be no more serious allegation than being accused of child sexual assault or murder. Yet, when referring to the Pell and Porter cases, Milligan claimed it was her critics who had got things wrong. She added: “Sometimes when you draw it to their attention and you, you provide information to correct the record, they simply refuse to – and that is really, really chilling to me.”
No evidence was provided to support the claim.
When I first read Cardinal, I wrote to Milligan asking 11 questions concerning errors and the scholarship in her book. She not only went into “no comment” mode but passed my email to her publisher, Louise Adler, who effectively told me to back off.
The list of questions are in my book Cardinal Pell, The Media Pile-On & Collective Guilt (Connor Court, 2021). They remain unanswered today.
Frank Brennan is the author of Observations on the Pell Proceedings (Connor Court, 2021), one of a trio of considered books written after the High Court decision that the ABC has effectively censored. Brennan has written a paper setting out changes in the material presented in the first and second editions of Cardinal.
Milligan has never explained, or even acknowledged, the inconsistencies. Yet she criticises others for their (alleged) errors that are not acknowledged or corrected by them.
As Sophie Elsworth reported in The Australian on September 12 this year, Milligan told the 2022 Melbourne Writers Festival: “If we make mistakes we must correct it immediately and people who don’t should hang their heads in shame.” This is not a practice that she follows.
It’s much the same with apologies. Milligan does not do regret. In March last year, on her private Twitter page, she repeated an error that (then) Liberal MP Andrew Laming had “upskirted” a female shop attendant. Milligan backed away from the accusation but declined to apologise. In the event, the ABC paid about $200,000 of taxpayers’ money to Laming for damages plus costs.
In her conversation with Rizvi, Milligan acknowledged that journalists had to be “extraordinarily careful in our practice” since they had a capacity “to destroy a person’s career” and/or “harm their reputation”. But Milligan’s campaigns against Pell, Porter and Laming did precisely this – despite the fact she was not able to establish her case to any known standard of proof.
Yet the ABC’s star journalist feels what she told The Briefing is “despair” that she has been criticised for mere journalism. Talk about giving lack of self-awareness a bad name.