Higgins ‘cover-up’ no Watergate. It was another ‘Russsiagate’

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18 April 2024
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Originally Appeared In

This article was originally published in Australian Financial Review on or about 18 April 2024 and was written by the author in their capacity as a contributor for that publication. 

It has been republished on the IPA website with permission. The views expressed are those of the author alone.


It might not be Australia’s own version of “Russiagate”, but there are more than a few parallels between claims the Morrison government tried to cover up the rape of Brittany Higgins and the accusation Donald Trump co-operated with Vladimir Putin during the 2016 US presidential election.

Both stories were reported on breathlessly by the media. Both had significant political consequences.

Many of Morrison’s political opponents wanted the tale of a cover-up to be true, just as Trump’s enemies wanted Russiagate to be real. And both stories are fictional – or in today’s parlance, misinformation.

While handing down his decision in Bruce Lehrmann’s defamation trial against Network Ten, Federal Court Justice Michael Lee could not have been clearer: “When examined properly and without partiality, the cover-up allegation was objectively short on facts, but long on speculation and internal inconsistencies.

“As I said during the hearing, it is the only alleged cover-up of which I am aware where those said to be responsible for the covering up were almost insisting the complainant go to the police.”

No matter what mistakes Morrison made as prime minister, he answered truthfully when asked in parliament by Anthony Albanese how the Coalition government had responded to the allegation of a sexual assault in the defence minister’s office in March 2019: “At all times, guidance was sought from Ms Higgins as to how she wished to proceed, and to support and respect her decisions. The government has aimed to provide Ms Higgins with her agency to provide support to make decisions in her interests and to respect her privacy. This offer of support and assistance continues.”

Some of the commentary on Morrison’s response to the allegations almost made him out to be Richard Nixon, or worse. This wasn’t Watergate.

The Australian media are better at self-congratulation than self-reflection. As Justice Lee put it, journalists won “glittering prizes” for their stories “of corrupt conduct in putting up roadblocks and forcing a rape victim to choose between her career and justice”.

Those stories were wrong, but there’s no sign of anyone giving back their awards. The Australian media has recently become obsessed with fact-checking. Usually, that fact-checking targets conservatives.

From Justice Lee’s judgment, it’s obvious there was very little fact-checking of the claims about a cover-up.

From early on, those Australians following the Higgins case picked a side to barrack for or against, and journalists were no different. Just like in the George Pell case. In both instances, it sometimes appeared as if the authorities were barracking for a side, too.

There have always been high-profile, controversial court cases, but there was something different about those cases. The world-weariness of old-school journalists has been replaced by a new generation who aren’t sceptical – they’re cynical and bitter.

To be fair to journalists, the audience for their work has changed, too. The public is now as willing as journalists to jump to conclusions

The new generation of journalists who are so quick to attack the supposed “conspiracy” theories of “populists” are at times all too eager to indulge in their own conspiracy theories – especially if they’re conspiracies somehow involving the Coalition.

If the media’s reporting of the Pell and Higgins cases is a glimpse into what lies ahead for Australian journalism, then the future is bleak. It points to the development of American-style partisanship in the media.

Television viewers in the US know what’s going to be said on Fox News and CNN before it’s said. (In Australia, watchers of the ABC’s Insiders already know that feeling.) What matters is not the argument’s merits, but who is making it.

It’s difficult to see how the different aspects of the Pell and Higgins cases, taken together through all their years of various trials and appeals, reflect well on the institutions that Australians once thought they could trust.

Justice Lee was right when he said the trial was “a proxy for broader cultural and political conflicts” in the country.

They’re conflicts in which many in the media are not disinterested observers but, instead, are active combatants.

Journalists have always been players in the game of politics, but until recently, they pretended they weren’t.

They’ve now stopped pretending.

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This article was original published in The Australian Financial Review and was written by the author in their capacity as a contributor for that publication. It has been republished on the IPA website with permission. The views expressed are those of the author alone.

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