The Age’s vile attack on Victorian minister Theo Theophanous completely backfired yesterday as even his most fierce foes thought the unvetted publication of the bizarre claims of a mentally disturbed accuser to be a bridge too far.
Rumours were strong yesterday in media circles that The Age’s Paul Austin and other colleagues were extremely uncomfortable with the story and with its placement on the front page.
SMEAR REPUDIATED BY AUSTIN
Today, in a dramatic development the Age’s chief state political reporter has all but repudiated that story and its presumption of guilt in the pages of the same newspaper. It indicates the seriousness and magnitude of the mistake made by The Age and the panic yesterday that all might not be as the psychiatrically ill accuser seems to be presenting.
These words put the central issue of the immorality of what The Age did yesterday in its attempted lynching of the Minister sharply into focus:
A few legal niceties also need to be restated if our justice system is to retain its integrity. Theophanous is entitled to the presumption of innocence and to due process. The fact that he is a colourful and controversial public figure who has always played his politics hard does not and must not be allowed to diminish those rights. He has not been charged with anything. Indeed, he has not yet been interviewed by the police. Like many alleged rapes, this is likely to boil down to his word against hers. The investigators have not even heard his account yet.
We can only add: Ditto.
Paul Austin is to be commended for being honest enough – and prudent enough – to distance himself from the grubbiest smear presented in its pages since it accused Kerry Packer of being a heroin dealer.
EARTHQUAKE FIRST // TSUNAMI LATER
But Austin’s analysis – as ever – of the politics doesn’t comprehend the full extent of the tsunami sized backlash that could very soon hit The Age newspaper and other false accusers. Nor does it fully deal with the overwhelming sense of outrage that even the Minister’s political foes have over the issue.
The reputational risk in this matter is now clearly shared by The Age’s editor-in-chief Paul Ramadge, the underachieving journalist Carolyn Webb who wrote an untested exposition of a self-admittedly mentally disturbed person’s claims and the newspaper itself.
Some obvious propositions are becoming increasingly very clear, in a way that oddly wasn’t the case prior to the publication of their outrageous story that:
â– the Minister is unlikely to be charged with one of society’s most chilling and despicable crimes by the authorities unless evidence exists to support the charges;
â– unless some aspects of the allegations are not fully divulged – and they appear to have been now fully leaked by the Victoria Police and their complainant – that no jury could possibly ever contemplate convicting someone in the circumstances described in The Age and elsewhere;
â– Victoria Police need to act now to interview the Minister or to announce they will not be charging him. One or the other. This has simply dragged on long enough, for reasons no-one in VicPol has explained (perhaps they’ve been too busy chatting on their sly mobile with John Silvester); and
â– if the Minister is not charged, he will – indeed, must – be reinstated to the Cabinet immediately, with no adverse consequences to him and the very real prospect that the complainant herself being investigated for filing a false report with Police. Paul Austin might think the Minister is “dead meat” but that analysis clearly doesn’t consider the rising tide of outrage that will engulf his false accusers, including The Age. What they have done is gravely serious and there will be consequences.
In the darkest times, we find the light within. And Minister Theophanous’ statement yesterday demonstrated his clear mind and strong principles in his approach to this incredibly difficult issue.
Far from being politically damaged, as Paul Austin bizarrely asserts, if he can come through it without being charged, he emerges bullet-proof, a phoenix.
The same cannot be said for Paul Austin’s employer, The Age. If its new editor finds himself in the position where he has allowed this despicable allegation to be made and it turns out there was nothing in it, it is he who is left ‘certainly finished’. It is Paul Ramadge left ‘soiled goods in public image terms. It is The Age newspaper, a masthead under siege, left with a severely damaged brand and massive potential legal liability. Of course, its long reign of error is nearing its end anyway, thanks to the near-death of classifieds in real estate, auto and employment, but with a devastating blow to its editorial reputation, now the end has been hastened. And most deservedly so.
SUSPENDING DISBELIEF CAN BE COSTLY
The Age has a real problem with a number of people in politics. It pursues hate-filled vendettas ruthlessly against MPs as diverse as Seitz, Danby, Mirabella, Languiller, Lim, Howard and of course Theophanous.
Some of it can be attributed to all being fair in love and war.
But not yesterday.
The stakes are clearly high for the Minister. If he’s charged, he enters a personal nightmare, despite the allegations seeming so preposterous as to be beyond words, even for those capable of completely suspending disbelief and logic.
But the stakes are just as high for The Age now. They have accused a senior cabinet minister of committing as serious a crime as exists. If The Age newspaper, its editor and little known writer is wrong, as they clearly seem to be, they must pay. And pay they certainly will.