I knew about the rape allegations more than a year ago. And I didn’t report them.
But this is a confession about human frailty and complicated moral decisions, not about a media conspiracy to cover up an alleged crime.
It’s natural that people want to know which minister stands accused of a “historical” rape. That people feel aggrieved that so many insiders apparently knew all about it, but didn’t drag it into the light.
The road from rumour to publication is not just rocky. It’s blocked, sometimes, by law. On one side it falls into the abyss of uncertainty, on the other there’s a creeping and impenetrable jungle of personal ethics, public interest tests, the murky miasma of unintended consequences.
And, if it’s not stretching the metaphor too far, the warning signs about procedural fairness.
So. One morning I strolled down an Adelaide street to a cafe full of sunshine and plants. And I listened to the woman as she told me her story about a horrific attack by a prominent politician (a claim the unnamed politician has denied).
And I did nothing. Well, except agonise over it from that moment to this.
The story had convincing detail, the ring of truth. But that’s not enough to put it in print. As we spoke, it was clear she was uncertain about going public. She was shaky, shaken, obviously suffering.
In the end, I made sure she had supportive people around her (she did), that she knew all the right places to go to for more help (she did), and told her to call me any time, and said that perhaps it was best, for now, to wait. She had started talking to police but wasn’t sure where she wanted official action to go.
So I decided not to push her. I told her that we’d only move on anything when and if she’d decided for sure that that’s what she wanted.
I didn’t call her again, because I worried that she would translate that as pressure.
I don’t want to sound defensive, although my internal monologue veers from defensiveness to guilt and back again. I just want to tease out how gut-wrenchingly complicated it can be to report (or try to report) on sexual abuse allegations.
First up, there’s the intimidatingly high bar of defamation law. The first rung to clear is your own belief in the truth of the events being described. There’s no single way to get to that point.
If your gut says there’s a story, and your heart says it’s in the public interest, you start to build your case. Get signed statutory declarations, figure out which freedom of information applications might help, talk to anyone who might know anything. Sometimes you find the proverbial smoking gun. Sometimes you’re painstakingly, incrementally, building one.
Make sure dates and times line up, that there are no clear contradictions that will spike your yarn.
Journalists have a clear code of ethics, but its application is a blend of subjective interpretation, personal squeamishness versus the desire for a scoop, and the need for arse covering. There’s no journalism manual that tells you how to proceed from allegation to publication, and journalists – particularly print journalists – zealously and jealously hold their works-in-progress close to their chests.
You’re on your own, mostly.
Until you clear that first bar and get to the second. Pitching the story to the higher-ups. Who will want to find any and all pokeable holes. Who will fossick through what you know and play devil’s advocate to see if the whole thing crumbles.
And the third rung. The lawyers. Who are naturally even more cautious than journalists and editors, because they are paid not to be driven by the imperative to break the story but to protect the company from any damage.
If you get all that way, all the way to publication, then you only have to worry about the 2am wake-in-fright moments. The dark hours where you bolt upright with a gasp, convinced you’ve made a terrible mistake and that you’ll be undone in front of everyone. The hurt and pain you’ve unwittingly caused to innocent bystanders, the triggering trauma you’ve unleashed, the backlash, the lingering fear you’ve missed something.
It’s understandable that people see the Canberra “bubble” as an opaque circle-jerk. Yes, Canberra can be too cosy. There are sociopathic journalists. There are transactional journalists. There are journalists who’ll hesitate to damage a good source, and others who’ll leap at the chance to damage someone they dislike.
But most of them, the ones I know, are anxious, complex bundles of hopes and fears. They wake in fright at 2am, terrified about the consequences of the decisions they’ve made, wondering if they should have done more, or less, or nothing at all.
• Tory Shepherd is a freelance journalist and writer
• If you or someone you know is impacted by sexual assault or family violence, call 1800-RESPECT on 1800 737 732 or visit www.1800RESPECT.org.au.