From the blog of conservative Australian commentator Andrew Bolt:
The media witch hunt against George Pell has just taken a strange new twist with a series of tweets by a former Herald Sun journalist that have been picked up by The Guardian.
The bizarre claim: that I somehow got the journalist dumped for her reporting on Pell.
The journalist, named Lucie Morris-Marr, was the author of an alliterative front page splash that appeared in February, titled “Police Probe Pell“. The article revealed that Victoria police were investigating allegations that Pell had abused children between 1978 and 2001, and that the investigation had been ongoing for a year. Bolt, who had previously defended Pell against criticisms that he had covered up clerical sex abuse, wrote a critical response in the same paper:
LAST week I called the witch hunt against Cardinal George Pell vicious and shameful. I thought it could not possibly get worse.
On Saturday, it did.
Now the campaign to destroy Pell has become sinister as well, after it was joined by — in my view — elements of Victoria Police.
…It seems to me a scandalous injustice and abuse of state power to leak information that the leaker must have known any newspaper would feel compelled to report, if not endorse.
…[It] comes just days before the cardinal will instead give evidence by video link from Rome to again answer accusations that he covered up abuse by some priests.
…I cannot say these latest claims are false. The police must investigate.
…But here is what I do know. A man is innocent until proven guilty.
…And here is one more thing I know. This leak stinks.
This column was in turn reported in the UK Guardian, under the headline “Andrew Bolt lashes out at Herald Sun reporter over George Pell story”:
Bolt, who calls himself a friend of the Vatican official, labelled Lucie Morris-Marr’s report that police were investigating allegations of sexual abuse by Pell a week before he was due to appear before the royal commission a vicious and shameful smear which was part of a “sinister” campaign to destroy the cardinal.
…But Morris-Marr, a senior writer on the Herald Sun, defended her story, saying it was not the result of leaks or a smear campaign but grew out of an old-fashioned investigation.
It seems to me that Bolt may have erred in assuming that the claim must have come via a police leak, but it’s difficult to see how his column amounted to “lashing out” against Morris-Marr. He does not name her anywhere, he doesn’t criticise the way the story was written up or the decision to publish, and he explicitly states that “any newspaper would feel compelled to report”. His criticism is squarely aimed that the police.
At the time, Morris-Marr responded by dismissing Bolt as “Pell’s mate”, but she has now revealed that she also made an internal complaint against Bolt the next day: “On Feb 22 2016 I made an HR complaint Bolt had breached several @newscorp codes of conduct.” In a later Tweet, she explained that in her view Bolt’s column had risked her sources by prompting the Independent Broad-based Anti-corruption Commission to probe the alleged leak, and for that reason he should be sacked from the paper. Further: “During drinks on night of Pell story @theHeraldSun my bosses said perm contract was in editor’s office.This was later denied after Bolt row.” She describes herself as having “lost job after being poisoned by… own scoop”.
Bolt denies any involvement in what he describes as a “conspiracy theory”, or of even knowing that a complaint had been made against him:
I did not know Lucie had left the paper until months later. I did not know she was on a one-year contract or was in any negotiations to renew it. I did not know she had left on bad terms. I did not know she had made any HR complaint… She had her say on Pell in the paper, I had mine, and as far as I know that was the end of that.
Morris-Marr also alleges that Bolt wrote in defence of Pell because the Herald Sun‘s owner, Rupert Murdoch, had previously publicly praised Pell. Thus she currently finds herself being celebrated as someone whose journalistic career has suffered because she stood up to Bolt and Murdoch to reveal allegations of sex abuse against a powerful individual.
Given the way that the Murdoch empire has been known to operate, such a narrative has a superficial attraction. Also, Andrew Bolt seems to be a somewhat unsympathetic figure, from what else I’ve seen of his polemical output. But in this instance it looks to me that confirmation bias is leading well-wishers astray with an allegation that lacks basic coherence.
Most obviously, “Police Probe Pell” was published as a front page splash in a Murdoch title. This would not have happened had Murdoch wanted to protect Pell. Second, Bolt’s column was an opinion piece based on his interpretation of material in the public domain – it didn’t reveal anything about Morris-Marr’s sources, and as such I can’t see how her complaint to HR could be valid. It seems that Morris-Marr moved aggressively against Bolt on multiple fronts – filing a complaint, alleging bad faith on Twitter, and then liaising with the Guardian to suggest he had “lashed out” – while in contrast there is only a tenuous hypothesis linking Bolt to the paper’s failure to give Morris-Marr a permanent contract.
Tellingly, Morris-Marr has also Tweeted that
Bolt said Pell was victim of a witch hunt & I tweeted that when it comes to child abuse I’m happy to be the witch leading any hunt.
In the wake of the UK’s Operation Midland fiasco, as well as several other high-profile false accusations, going into an investigation with this attitude simply won’t do.
UPDATE: The promised new Guardian article has now been published, under the headline “News Corp reporter ‘went through hell’ after Andrew Bolt attacked her Pell story”:
Morris-Marr lodged an internal complaint regarding Bolt’s column, saying it threatened to expose her and her sources by implying she had received leaks from within Victoria police. Victoria police later referred the “leak” to Victoria’s anti-corruption commission in an attempt to find Morris-Marr’s source.
Morris-Marr’s complaint also alleged Bolt’s column breached News Corp’s editorial guidelines because he had allowed his friendship with Pell to influence his editorial position.
…Bolt exclusively interviewed Pell for Sky News about a week later, in which he declared the pair were not friends, while Morris-Marr took time off to deal with the stress of the anti-corruption commission investigation and the dispute with her colleague.
…She told her bosses she wanted “to move forward” and thought they wanted to do the same thing. “I had six weeks left on my contract. Then literally the day before my contract expired, they met with me and said there’s no money.”
This is all a bit odd. As noted above already, Bolt’s column was an opinion piece based on public information. Further, it was published on 21 February – by which time numerous media reports had reported Pell’s view that that Herald Sun article had been prompted by a police leak (“Pell has called for a public inquiry to be conducted into the Victorian police, saying the allegations were leaked to damage him”, according to the Guardian on 20 February). Bolt merely concurred with this assessment, and he made it clear that this was just his opinion (“in my view”… “almost certainly”).
It is true that Victoria Police afterwards stated that it was “concerned about media reporting alleging that police have leaked details”, but this was in response to all the articles carrying Pell’s complaint, rather than just Bolt’s opinion piece (assuming they had even noticed it). And in any case, the Herald Sun article on its own ought to have been enough for the police to be concerned about the possibility of a leak. If you’re going to write a sensational front-page scoop that reveals the existence of a police investigation involving a high-profile public figure, then surely you would expect the police to wonder how it is that you know about it? Dealing with that is part of the job.
Morris-Marr has also Tweeted further about the subject, although in a contradictory way. On the one hand, she accepts that Bolt was not told about the HR complaint. But on the other, she boasts about a meeting where she apparently called the shots by having Bolt removed:
When Bolt fuck up happened went to meeting @theHeraldSun with bosses and lawyers.As a joke I said “invite Bolt.”They did. I got him removed.
This is bizarre. Did she make the “joke” before going off work with stress, or later? And if the point of the meeting was to correct Morris-Marr’s incorrect assumption about the leak, why did she want him to be removed anyway? And why has neither of them mentioned this incident before now? Surely Bolt would have referred to such an encounter in his blog post?
It’s natural to want to sympathize with a frontline female journalist when pitted against controversalist who appears to be a bit of bruiser and an employer who we’re told did not follow through with a promise of a contract. But this particular tale of victimization fails to convince.
UPDATE 2: Morris-Marr is now boasting that she could bring “scoop after scoop on Pell” if News Corp paid her to do so. Such a boast is grandiose and reckless, and it suggests that the decision not to extend her contract was a good one. However, despite the weakness of her case the general mood on Twitter is that she has suffered an injustice, and that Bolt’s criticisms are evidence of extraordinary personal wickedness on his part.
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