Who cares about the Walkleys?

How Walkley Awards jumped the gun on truth and accuracy as journalists erred in anti-Pell frenzy

Chris Mitchell, The Australian, 30 November 2020

Is Australian journalism following the US down the road of political activism over truth and accuracy?

Last Friday week’s annual Walkley Awards for journalism included some brilliant work, but a couple of winners — while not “fake news” — did include “alternative facts”, or omitted “inconvenient truths”.

This column has often referred to Pulitzer Prize winner Glenn Greenwald, who broke the Edward Snowden National Security Agency leaks story for The Guardian in 2014, and to Matt Taibbi, whose website publishes some of his country’s best political commentary. Both say mainstream US journalists are producing fake news about the Trump presidency and “Russiagate”.

Neither is a Trump supporter, but both are believers in fairness, balance and truth. A piece published on November 23 by another Pulitzer Prize winner and former New York Times foreign editor Chris Hedges on the Common Dreams website discusses the Greenwald and Taibbi critiques.

Hedges, like this column, finds a commercial motive for publishers now bowing to trends driven out of journalism schools: “The press … has largely given up on journalism. It has retreated into echo chambers that only speak to true believers. This catering exclusively to one demographic, which sets it against another demographic, is commercially profitable. But it also guarantees the balkanisation of the United States.”

Substitute Russia for Cardinal George Pell and the same phenomenon may be taking root here. A couple of Pell entries received Walkleys — Lucie Morris-Marr’s book Fallen and the ABC’s three-part documentary on paedophilia in the Catholic Church, Revelation.

Former Four Corners presenter Sarah Ferguson’s interviews in the first two parts of Revelation are compelling. She speaks to convicted paedophile priest Father Vincent Ryan and convicted St John of God Brother Bernard McGrath. Ferguson tries to understand the motives of the abusers and effectively portrays the damaging, sometimes fatal, effects of their crimes on victims and their families. It’s harrowing stuff, and would have won best documentary just on parts one and two.

Episode three is more problematic. It had to be removed from ABC iview and re-edited after the High Court on April 7 this year in a 7-0 judgment overturned the conviction of then Melbourne Archbishop Pell for raping two altar boys after mass in late 1996 at Melbourne St Patrick’s Cathedral.

It’s a pity Ferguson could not resist the journalistic pull of the Pell case, which has generated a publishing boom with four books and more on the way. Melbourne ABC journalist Louise Milligan won a Walkley Book of the Year in 2017 for Cardinal, and two Melbourne Press Club Quills for reports on the Pell matter on 7.30.

But Cardinal had also cost Melbourne University Press CEO Louise Adler her job. All charges arising from alleged events in Milligan’s book and her ABC reports have failed — either dropped by the Victorian DPP, thrown out by magistrates at committal or overturned on appeal in the St Patrick’s matters.

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