Theo Theophanous is an Australian ex-politician who served in the Australian Victorian Legislative Council and was forced to resign from the cabinet after allegations that he was being investigated for an alleged rape. The rape charge was subsequently dismissed when a magistrate ruled the complainant's evidence was "unreliable."
Now the Australian Press Council has upheld a complaint against the newspaper The Age that it allowed one its journalists, a woman named Carolyn Webb, "to publish a lengthy article about the later discredited allegations of an alleged rape victim against an MP, despite the woman being a personal friend." The Press Council noted that the paper should have put another journalist onto the story or disclosed the potential conflict of interest:
"On the basis of the material before it, the Council has found that Ms Webb clearly had a potential conflict of interest through her friendship with the woman making the allegations. In the course of the lengthy preparation of the article for publication, this relationship became known to the newspaper itself and, it appears, so did the woman’s previous inconsistent version. The article was concerned with very grave matters and focused heavily on highly personal allegations in an exclusive interview with Ms Webb. In these circumstances, the newspaper should have assigned overall responsibility for the story to another journalist instead of, or at least in addition to, Ms Webb. Alternatively, the relationship should have been disclosed in the article. On these grounds the complaint by Mr Theophanous is upheld."
Andrew Bolt of the Herald Sun lays out the shameful treatment afforded Mr. Theophanous:
Story shame for The Age
THE lynching of Theo Theophanous - the Labor minister falsely accused of rape - just became even more shameful.
This week the Australian Press Council took an axe to The Age, which first let loose the defamation that cost Theophanous his job, his reputation and much of his savings.
In October 2008, the paper published on its front page an "exclusive interview" with a woman who claimed she'd been raped by Theophanous, a friend, in his State Parliament office.
She'd been so devastated, she claimed, that she suffered a nervous breakdown and had to move in with her parents in Greece.
Now she'd defy Theophanous's threats: "I'm prepared to stand on the steps of Parliament with a banner saying, 'I want justice'."
Four days later, the Sunday Age followed with a devastating profile of Theophanous, which used largely anonymous sources to portray the minister for major projects, industry and trade as a violent, lecherous, light-fingered and treacherous shonk, who'd use moral blackmail to hush his victim.
Already alarm bells should have rung in the skull of any reader with even a skerrick of a brain or a sense of fair play.
As I wrote that same month, why was the "accuser ... given every protection and the accused almost none"?
Theophanous had not even been interviewed by police, let alone charged, yet was already named and savagely shamed on the front page of The Age.
So toxic is the mere accusation of "rapist" that within days he was forced to step down as minister, and a year later, career shredded, quit Parliament.
Yet his accuser (let's call her Helen) had her anonymity protected by The Age - and still does today, even after being found by a court last year to be an "entirely unreliable witness" at times barely "clinging to reality, if not her sanity" as she made claims lacking "credibility, reliability and truthfulness".
Nor was that the only problem I noted on day one with this Age story.
For instance, Helen took 10 years to report her alleged rape, which she explained in part by claiming she "didn't think (she) had the strength of financial resources".
Pardon? A complaint to police doesn't cost a cent.
Another odd thing: Helen claimed Theophanous had pestered her for years afterwards with flirty text messages, and had tried to see her.
Odd behaviour from a canny politician with a terrible crime to hide.
But little did I know how much more The Age had concealed from its readers - and, in concealing, made the claims of a desperately unreliable woman ring truer than they were.
As the Press Council this week revealed, Age executives knew before they published their "exclusive" that their reporter, Carolyn Webb, was a friend of Helen and had stayed with her in Greece, which meant she "clearly had a potential conflict of interest" that could have skewed her report.
The Age also knew beforehand that Helen had given Webb inconsistent versions of her story that "differed in key respects", even to the extent of the date and place of the alleged rape.
What's more, Webb had failed to check the rape allegations with two women Helen named as witnesses - women who later told a court that Helen had lied or sent them doctored emails to invent conversations they'd had about her "rape".
None of this stopped The Age from publishing a story it should have doubted. Worse, it failed to tell readers either that Helen's story had changed, or that the reporter was her friend.
As for the Sunday Age smear-piece four days later, the council noted it was written by a reporter, Michael Bachelard, who'd already appeared before the Victorian Ombudsman about another piece in which he'd accused Theophanous of grubby behaviour - in this case, of trying to help a mate get a government cleaning contract.
What the Press Council failed to add was that the Ombudsman had Bachelard conceding he'd muddled his facts - "probably somewhere in the murky depths of my mind (I) put two and two together" - and concluded there was "no evidence to support the allegation that Minister Theophanous attempted to influence" the letting of any contract.
BUT here Bachelard was, again blackening Theophanous's name, but again airing a false allegation.
How false? A year later Magistrate Peter Reardon threw out the case against Theophanous at the committal stage, ruling Helen was a completely unreliable witness and no jury could convict on the evidence.
No wonder. The court had heard that the Sexual Crimes Squad detective who took Helen's statement took 15 months and an extraordinary 15 drafts to try to knock it into some plausible shape.
He kept finding inconsistencies, you see. For example, he had to ask Helen to change the date of her alleged rape from June or July of 2000 to October of 1998.
He told her she also had to change her claim that she'd rung a girlfriend after the rape, since her phone records showed she'd rung a former boyfriend instead.
And could she explain having been found guilty in 1994 of making a false statement in claiming social security? How about an excuse for having falsely accused a former boss of "sexual harassment"?
Asked in court why he'd been so credulous, the detective said: "It's incumbent on us to believe what complainants tell us ... "
Other bits of Helen's evidence crumbled in court at a slight touch.
A boyfriend who'd dumped her for being abusive was shocked when he learned she'd just told the court she'd dumped him instead, claiming she'd caught him masturbating over child porn. Other former friends described her as a liar, fantasist or forger.
This was the woman who an Age reporter - allegedly with an observant eye, and close enough to call herself a friend - chose to believe.
This was the woman whose wild and career-murdering allegations were plastered all over The Age, which hid inconsistencies that could have made readers suspect the truth.
And so fell Theophanous, his long and distinguished career ruined by the pointing finger of an anonymous accuser of no credibility.
So what should we learn? First, this tyranny of the pointing finger must be resisted.
Second, we should be slower to grant anonymity to those making devastating allegations against public figures with no such protection from being named, shamed and finished.
Third, we should remember that the plural of rumour is not evidence.
Fourth, we must defy the modern convention that some allegations are so sacred that it's a sin to question. These most notably include allegations of rape, racism and global warming.
And, lastly, we should never forget that every journalist has an agenda. It's just that some do not declare them when it matters most.
Five lessons, and it's Theophanous who has paid with his career and his name for them having been forgotten.
Still, look on the bright side. At least the Age reporters - Bachelard and Webb - still have their jobs.
Mr. Bolt has an addendum in today's paper:
IN Monday's letters page, Det-Insp Glenn Davies of the sexual crimes squad denounced my report of the witch-hunt that cost Labor minister Theo Theophanous his job.
Theophanous was charged with the rape of a woman later found by a magistrate to be an "entirely unreliable witness" who at times was "barely clinging to reality" and she made claims lacking "credibility, reliability and truthfulness".
This was a woman whose statement was repeatedly redrafted by a sexual crimes squad detective to remove significant inconsistencies. Even the year of her alleged rape was changed.
Davies on Monday demanded to know my "agenda" and accused me of "at times wholly incorrect reporting of the case".
My agenda was to see that innocent men not be ruined by false allegations. As for my "incorrect reporting", Davies in 13 paragraphs cited not one example.
If my report was so wide of the mark, why were the charges laid by Davies' squad thrown out at the committal hearing?