What’s notable about the ABC’s communications department (headed by Nick Leys and Sally Jackson) is that it does not do much in the way of communicating. This has been a constant complaint of The Australian’s media writer Sophie Elsworth among others (myself included) who have found it difficult to obtain information from the taxpayer-funded public broadcaster.

So it came as some surprise on Tuesday when the “ABC statement on Louise Milligan” appeared with Jackson identified as the media contact – rather than the more familiar anonymous “ABC spokesperson”. It began: “Louise Milligan is one of Australia’s most experienced and awarded journalists and her work has added enormously to the public good of this nation.”

It was an unusual intervention in the public debate. When, some years ago, the (then) ABC journalist Emma Alberici was criticised by prime minister Malcolm Turnbull for her comments on tax, the ABC proffered no public defence of one of its most experienced journalists.

The ABC’s defence of Milligan comprised a record of her work on Four Corners along with an account of her awards for journalism, most of which were decided by other journalists. This overlooked the fact that the current controversy about Milligan turned on her address on October 21 to the ACT Bar Association’s Women Lawyers Association gala dinner.

The story was broken by former lawyer Janet Albrechtsen in her column in The Australian on November 2. The author asked for an audio or transcript of the speech, without success. The ABC told The Australian that this was not an ABC event.

Milligan finally released a copy of her speech on LinkedIn on Thursday following the matter having been raised in Senate estimates the previous Tuesday by opposition communications spokes­woman Sarah Henderson. ABC managing director and editor-in-chief David Anderson told the senators that Milligan’s speech would be released.

On November 3, on behalf of the ACT Bar Association, Rebecca Curran wrote to the WLA advising that “a significant number of our members who attended (the dinner) were deeply offended and distressed by the speech” and that, in the view of the ACT Bar Association, “Milligan’s speech was insensitive and polemical”.

Curran added that the association was of the view that Milligan “demonstrated no understanding of the difficult and vital work done by barristers of all genders in both criminal law and other areas of the law … and seemed to generalise that all barristers who acted for defendants in sexual assault matters were part of the problem”.

Milligan is one of quite a few members of her profession who like dishing out criticism but are not only ultra-sensitive but also self-righteous when criticism is directed at them. And so it came to pass that the ABC’s experienced journalist was live-tweeting criticism of Henderson when she was questioning Milligan’s boss Anderson in Senate estimates.

In her long Canberra speech, in which many allegations were not supported by evidence, Milligan expressed sensitivity about having been described as an “activist” journalist. She claimed that “so much of the white noise that has been thrown at myself and other female journalists has seemed to be gendered”.

Sure, there are many activist male journalists. It’s just that Milligan is an activist female journalist. One example illustrates the point. Milligan shot to fame because of her 30-minute attack on Cardinal George Pell on ABC TV’s 7.30 program on July 27, 2016, effectively accusing him of being a pedophile. This was followed up by her book Cardinal: The Rise and Fall of George Pell (MUP, 2017).

Interviewed by Virginia Trioli on ABC TV News Breakfast on May 16, 2017, Milligan said the case against Pell advanced by her book “has come from the complainants’ point of view”. In other words, this was a work of advocacy – or activist journalism.

Even so, ABC management allowed Milligan to report on the Pell case, including his conviction for historical child sexual abuse following a retrial and unsuccessful appeal to the Victorian Court of Appeal following a majority decision. Milligan made it clear that she did not agree with the unanimous decision of the High Court to quash Pell’s conviction.

All seven judges of Australia’s superior court substantially agreed with Justice Mark Weinberg’s devastating dissent in the Victorian Court of Appeal.

The High Court followed Weinberg in making the unusual statement that it was possible an innocent person had been convicted. This was the term used by Justice William Deane in his dissent in the Lindy Chamberlain case of recent memory.

In her Canberra speech, Milligan referred to her 2020 book Witness (Hachette), which I reviewed in The Sydney Institute Review online in March last year. In Witness, the author all but ignores the High Court’s April 2020 decision in Pell v The Queen (despite the fact Pell is mentioned in over a third of the chapters) and regards all complainants as survivors. Well most are. But to imply that all accused are guilty invariably leads to the opposition that Milligan experienced from Albrechtsen and some members of her Canberra audience who acknowledge that a functioning legal system entails that both a complainant and an accused receive a fair hearing.

ABC management’s statement praising Milligan refers not only to her 7.30 program and follow-up book Cardinal but also to the Four Corners Guilty program that aired after Pell’s conviction. But it makes no mention that all have been the subject of considered criticism.

The ABC TV Media Watch program, presented by Paul Barry, is by no means a constant critic of the ABC – rather its obsession is with Sky News. However, on April 20 last year Barry did criticise the program Guilty – pointing out that Milligan “did not canvass any of Pell’s defence from the trial”. It was yet another act by an activist journalist running a line.

It’s around six years since Milligan used the ABC to advance a case for the prosecution against Pell. In this time, the public broadcaster has not provided a microphone to any of Milligan’s critics. The ABC’s communications style is of the one-way kind.