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Council for Civil Liberties Vice-President criticises the media coverage of the controversy surrounding Dr Peter Hollingworth.

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Monday, 26 May 2003




PETER THOMPSON: Peter Hollingworth can’t buy a friend in Canberra at the moment. Most commentators and politicians are agreed that he’s done the right thing in resigning as Governor-General. For his part, Dr Hollingworth says he’s quitting with deep regret and that the allegations against him are unwarranted and misplaced. The outgoing Governor-General does have some supporters, however. The Council for Civil Liberties believes he’s been hounded out of office by a relentless media campaign. Terry O’Gorman is the Council’s Vice-President, and he joins us from Brisbane this morning. Terry O’Gorman, good morning to you.


TERRY O’GORMAN: Good morning, Peter.


PETER THOMPSON: Has the Governor-General been given a fair go?


TERRY O’GORMAN: From a civil liberties point of view the simple answer to that is ‘no’. I would indicate that I’ve never met him, I’m not an Anglican, I opposed his appointment because it blurred the division between church and state. But that said, I think his civil liberties have been absolutely trounced. The media coverage of the Anglican Church inquiry report handed down over two weeks ago is just so one-sided as to amount to a witch-hunt, and you really have to question the report in the aftermath of its delivery, when one of the two authors, Professor Freda Briggs, within days of being one of the two joint authors in handing down the report, is then saying to a Sydney Morning Herald journalist that the Governor-General should resign.


PETER THOMPSON: Given that we live in a media hothouse where every five minutes journalists are looking for a new angle, new story, that we live in a saturation media world, this is likely to occur again and again, isn’t it?


TERRY O’GORMAN: It is, and I just think that the media are so precious about demanding accountability, responsiveness and transparency of other decision-makers, there ought to be some of the same applied to them. Only a couple of weeks ago the Queensland Premier suggested that there be media ombudsmen appointed in major media outlets, such as what occurs in major particular newspaper outlets in North America, and the howls from the media were so loud that that was a two-day news wonder.


PETER THOMPSON: What in particular was it about the handling of the Anglican Church report that was offensive to you?


TERRY O’GORMAN: What the media just failed to report, or if it was reported it was reported so much on the periphery that it didn’t get through, was two things: firstly, that the issue that kicked this whole controversy off 12 months ago, namely criticisms of Dr Hollingworth in relation to a court case surrounding the Toowoomba Preparatory School, his activities were seriously wanting. The Anglican Church inquiry two weeks ago unqualifiedly and completely exonerated him of any administrative or any other wrongdoing. That was never reported. In relation to the priest, Elliott, where the report did criticise him for keeping the priest on after the priest had admitted to paedophilia activity, again what the media failed to report was primarily that that decision to keep that priest on was made by Dr Hollingworth in conjunction with a number of other bishops, all of whom have been absolutely silent as to why they backed that decision.


Now, the fact is the media failed to report that that decision to keep that priest on was made in conjunction with a number of other archbishops and on the basis of psychiatric advice.


PETER THOMPSON: I’m not challenging the point you’ve just made, but when legitimate questions are raised about an office holder such as the Governor-General, how should the person in the office, the Governor-General, handle such things?


TERRY O’GORMAN: It’s a question of how is he allowed to handle such things first. In relation to the media coverage it’s been impossible for those two points that I’ve just made, for the Governor-General to get that across to the public at large. And the net result of that, so opinion polls say, is that three out of four people up until yesterday thought he should resign. Well, if you get a one-sided, slanted media coverage of an absolutely emotive topic such as paedophilia, then of course it amounts to a witch-hunt and of course you’re going to feel that you have no option but to resign.


PETER THOMPSON: It’s true, isn’t it, that someone that holds a vice-regal office of this sort that while their legal rights are of course in theory the same as everyone else, there are different standards of behaviour expected.


TERRY O’GORMAN: I agree with that, but the obvious needs to be made. Dr Hollingworth has never been accused of paedophilia and the issues that he was criticised about in the report, particularly the Father Elliott matter I’ve just referred to, were issues relating to his conduct almost a decade before. And the point needs to be made, and most heads of church across all denominations would agree with it. A decade ago all heads of churches were handling allegations of paedophilia inaccurately and not very well. What has happened here is that Dr Hollingworth’s tenure as Governor-General has been judged by the very high, and justifiably high, accountability standards of heads of churches as they exist in 2003.


Over the last decade all churches—the Anglican Church, the Catholic Church—have all developed protocols which in effect said: a decade ago we weren’t doing this properly, let’s do it better. But he’s been forced out on the basis of mistakes that all heads of churches were making 10 years ago.


PETER THOMPSON: The Governor-General specifically has raised natural justice questions about the Anglican Church inquiry. When he steps down from office in the next few days, one presumes, is there any point in him pursuing a case questioning that inquiry through the courts, as he would be entitled to do?


TERRY O’GORMAN: I think it’s probably academic. The damage is done, he’s finished. And the second point that needs to be made is: it’s an incredibly expensive exercise to challenge such a report like this in the courts. Up until the last 12 months when he has earned a fairly high income, for the rest of his previous life he’s been a priest and for a short time a bishop. Most priests don’t have much money left when they retire. But the inquiry, you see, was flawed in two important respects: one, it was not conducted under a royal commission act so therefore there was no cross-examination. And many of your listeners might say: well, if my career, if my reputation was to be decided without an ability to cross-examine the accusers, what sort of a report is it?


The second issue is that one of the co-authors, Professor Freda Briggs, hands down the report on the Friday and three or four days later she’s saying to a senior Sydney Morning Herald journalist that the Governor-General should resign. Many people went back and reviewed their view of the report with a very different eye once you saw that sort of a comment.


PETER THOMPSON: You subscribe to the media the notion that there was a witch-hunt on. Is there any collective motive for such a thing?


TERRY O’GORMAN: I don’t think the people in the media have got together and said: let’s bring down the Governor-General because I think there’s too much competition between media outlets for that sort of collusion to occur. But what has happened is this, and this is why as the President of the Australian Council for Civil Liberties I’ve been concerned about the civil rights of the highest office holder in the land. When you come to a debate about paedophilia in this country it is almost impossible to bring balance into that debate. That impossibility reached its height with the Governor-General. Any other area such as fraud and the like, you’ll get most people to say: well, let’s give this person procedural fairness. In relation to paedophilia it’s impossible to have a balanced debate. Very few commentators are prepared to say: hang on, let’s ensure that the person we’re accusing, whether he’s an actual committer of paedophilia acts, which of course has never been the accusation against the Governor-General, or in relation to a bishop who’s made a false decision, very few people in the last two to three weeks have said, and particularly very few politicians: let’s look and let’s ensure the procedural fairness rights of Dr Hollingworth are looked after. They haven’t been looked after, they’ve been trounced. The media coverage has been one-sided. That’s why I say the witch-hunt has had its effect.


PETER THOMPSON: Terry O’Gorman, thanks very much indeed.


TERRY O’GORMAN: Thanks, Peter.


PETER THOMPSON: Terry O’Gorman, who’s Vice-President of the Council for Civil Liberties, talking to us from Brisbane.