The City of Churches was recently named the world’s most livable metropolis. Clearly then, no longer merely “Yass with poofs”, as Barry Humphries once memorably termed Adelaide. It is beyond time, you would think, that this most livable of large country towns acquired a press worthy of its newly acquired status. A press of independent thought, investigative instincts, thoroughness, checking alleged facts, a sliver of objectivity and sober analytical skills. Sadly, Adelaide has none of these.
Adelaide is a one newspaper town, owned, inevitably (and alas) by the Murdochs. The Advertiser is perhaps not as bad as the Murdoch tabloids in the Eastern States (The Herald Sun and the Daily Telegraph, principally), which offer little more than a potpourri of football, reality television, regurgitation of the tweets of nobodies, and splashes of soft porn. But this is only a matter of degree, not of kind. The Advertiser publishes bilge. Fake news.
Perhaps South Australia deserves the press it has. After a cracking start – no convicts – it has been all downhill since. With no industry left to speak of, the state suffers the backdrop of a stifling desert, isolation from the major centres of population, the legacy of decades of socialist rule, endless power blackouts, having no politicians of any standing since Tom Playford died – effete, woke men who wear pink shorts in parliament don’t really count – and “leading” politicians in recent times of the miniscule talent and good grace of the likes of Simon Birmingham and Christopher Pyne. It is a state dripping with progressive values, run by a governing party of alleged conservatism but in reality an institution that refuses to admit as members anyone that disagrees with the party’s radical social libertarianism. It is a state that is now among the leading locations for the culture of death. On reflection, this place is made for a shoddy newspaper.
And, boy does it have one.
It was The Adelaide Advertiser, through its Sunday tabloid The Mail, that in 2008 decided to destroy the life, reputation and career of a prominent Catholic priest. It slandered Father John Fleming by regurgitating the already long-dismissed (by two Churches and by the South Australian Police) imaginings of a woman who claimed that she had seduced John Fleming when she was fourteen and he was twenty-seven. Making him a child molester. Oh, and in the company of another girl who would later become Fr Fleming’s wife (of now 46 years). In a room in a house in the countryside where the family of Fr Fleming’s future wife were holidaying, and where Fleming was a locum. Really, you couldn’t make this stuff up. Oh, wait a minute, someone did make it up.
The complainant (“Jane”, naturally not named) finally found a gullible, “we believe you” journalist who not only accepted her crazy, unbelievable, forty-year-old story as true, but who agreed to splash it all over The Sunday Mail paper. In an atmosphere of moral panic about child sex abuse, driven by hatred of both tall poppies and of the Catholic Church, and infested with #MeTooist legal doctrines. Those in Adelaide who know both Fleming and the complainant are very clear as to which of the two are to be believed.
The journalist concerned, and now supported by another journalist at the same paper, have carried on a spiteful vendetta against Fleming right up to this very week – yes, thirteen years of venom – are named Hunt (beginning with a H, though apparently not spelled that way by everyone in Adelaide) and Fewster. Priest-chasing journalists from central casting, both. In the world of journalism, they are very small fish in a tiny pond. That unsuccessful slayer of George Pell and now of Christian Porter, the Australian Broadcasting Commission’s Louise Milligan, once had her evil book that all but destroyed Pell’s reputation in 2017 described as “semi-literate police talking points”. Unlike the Adelaide try-hards, at least Milligan swills around in a decent-sized pond.
In an instant, Fleming’s career was taken from him. Not unreasonably, in an attempt to salvage his good name, he summoned the energy and resources to sue the newspaper for defamation. He lost that case. The judge presiding had been dragged out of retirement to plug a gap in a South Australian judicial system struggling under the weight of its incompetence. Named Malcolm Gray, he delivered a judgement against John Fleming so ill-considered and legally illiterate as to make the Victorian Justices Ferguson and Maxwell – who ignored basic and easily understood legal principles in rejecting the Pell appeal – look like Lord Denning. Alas, Fleming’s subsequent appeal to the Full Bench of the South Australian Supreme Court Court also failed, while the disgracefully off-message High Court refused to consider the obvious important legal fallacies which lay at the heart of the decisions taken by the SA Supreme Court.
Today, John Fleming has in his corner some of Australia’s sharpest legal scholars who recognise not only his innocence of the allegations – not charges; he was never charged with anything – but they also recognise the legal blunders at the heart of the Fleming defamation case.
As Prof Augusto Zimmermann has explained, they relate to:
- Overturning the presumption of innocence, the standard of proof in civil cases and the application of the so-called Briginshaw principle;
- Faulty consideration of evidence;
- The treatment of the testimony of expert witnesses;
- The favouring of particular witnesses over others without reason; and
- Reflexively believing complainants to be “compelling” if they put on a good show in the witness box, irrespective of exculpatory evidence.
The Briginshaw uncertainty created by the Fleming defamation case decision leaves plaintiffs who have been defamed in legal limbo.
This is especially so in this heightened age of moral panic about rape and sex abuse, the targeting of accused men by the legal #MeTooists, the removal of “filters” from the police and from Directors of Public Prosecutions by governments. These filters had previously meant that weak cases just didn’t go to court, only then to be defeated. The same governments who insisted that law enforcement lower the threshold for cases to be considered for prosecution are now totally spooked by the woke revolution and determined to get more sex abuse cases to court, and, more importantly for these low-brow, cowering politicians, obtain more convictions so as to “even things up”, to “send a message”. As Margaret Cunneen SC and Stephen Odgers SC have pointed out, this amounts to a presumption of guilt. Or as the prominent US attorney Alan Dershowitz has termed it, “guilt by accusation”. Men, and especially Catholic priests, are on a hiding to nothing.
Against this, we have Sean Fewster’s latest tirade in the Sunday Mail. What was this one about?
Fleming had contested a decision by the South Australian Department of Human Services to deny him a Working with Children clearance. Fleming doesn’t want or need to work in ministries involving children. Not that he would be the remotest threat to them. No, thanks to the Catholic Church’s constant rolling over in the face of presumed secularist opposition to going soft on child sex abuse – that horse, of course, has already well and truly bolted – Fr Fleming has to get a Working with Children clearance in order to say a public Mass! Fleming then went to the South Australian Civil and Administrative Tribunal on appeal. He lost that too. But somehow The Advertiser got wind of this decision – probably through a leak from SACAT – and went after Fleming afresh, requesting – and being granted – access to the reasons for the rejected appeal. This is despite SACAT’s previously agreeing with Fleming to keep the matter confidential. An undertaking broken.
This gave Fewster the ammunition for his latest, utterly pointless round of attack-dogging, in which there is absolutely no public interest. Where to start with this piece of gutter reporting? Well, he and his overpaid sub-editor got the headline and main premise wrong for a start. Fleming is NOT an ex-priest. He is a fully recognised priest of the Catholic Church, whose Archdiocese of Adelaide has issued a decree of “no crime” against John Fleming.
Second, The Advertiser should not be even reporting on this matter. It was involved in the case. It cannot pretend to be objective.
Third, Fewster’s low-rent hit piece was riddled with factual errors, not least the claims that Fleming is “disgraced” – he is not – and that he is an ex-priest. He didn’t “fail in his bid to work with kids”. That was not the purpose of Fleming’s appeal to SACAT. Fleming did not sue The Advertiser in 2008. Fewster is entitled to his own opinions, but not to his own facts. And it is highly likely that these errors are the more the result of malice than of woeful research and the lack of a commitment to accuracy.
Fourth, there are serious sins of omission in the Advertiser’s tirade. A journalist with an ounce of investigative DNA might well have found cause to investigate how and why Fleming lost his defamation case, the extant legal issues referred to above, the serious blunders made in the trial judgement, and the impact of this grave miscarriage of justice on the Fleming family. More broadly, he might have, post the Pell exoneration, looked afresh at accusations by troubled complainants (putting it at its kindest, in the case of the Fleming accuser and probably Pell’s as well) and at other recent defamation cases that went the way of the plaintiff. The sins of omission are just as critical as outlandish errors of fact to any claim of balanced journalism.
Fifth, much of the article is almost, word-for-word, a re-hash of the bile written by Fewster in previous years after the failure of Fleming’s appeals. In other words, self-plagiarism. This is lazy journalism at its worst. Any editor or senior manager of a newspaper even minimally interested in maintaining the respect of readers would have recognised these Journalism 101, nay, schoolboy, errors and decided not to publish. Not only errors, but malice. This is what drives the reporters at The Advertiser. Ask Christian Porter about the malicious intent of journalists.
All this on Rupert Murdoch’s ageing and less than competent watch.
John Fleming had been a prize catch for the Catholic Church, an internationally recognised scholar, a respected specialist in bioethics, a respected Anglican minister, a devoted husband and father, a well-known media personality in South Australia. He is of sound theology and has an abiding commitment to liturgical beauty (not something remotely guaranteed among the crop of post Vatican Two priests, alas). His reputation propelled him into the role of foundation President of the prestigious Campion College, Australia’s home of the liberal arts and a beacon institution that stands out in the intellectual wasteland that is contemporary Australian higher education. Much of its outstanding reputation is the result of the foundational work of its inaugural President.
Yet Fleming was cut adrift, and left adrift, disgracefully, by a Church cowed by the feminists and progressives who have gone after it with attack-dog glee as a result of its repulsive, historic priestly crimes and sins. Sins in which every one of us is, ultimately, a victim. This is a Church that will not re-admit to active ministry those falsely accused but never convicted of anything. A Church that, on learning of Cardinal Pell’s exoneration, was moved – at least its official organisation of Bishops was – to make even more mea culpas and pleas on behalf of the “victims”. Pell’s response to an interview question about the lack of support he received from the Australian Catholic Bishops during his trial and imprisonment was “that’s life”. Well, yes. But falsely accused prelates and priests deserve far great support than they now receive. You can, in fact, walk and chew gum simultaneously. You can grieve for the real victims of vile sexual abuse, AND go into bat for those who credibly insist on their innocence. And let them say Mass in public. What a signal THAT would send to the Sean Fewsters and Nigel Hunts.
One can only hope there is a special circle of hell reserved for those who lie about and ceaselessly hound the innocent. The evil that men (and women) do never ceases and is not likely to escape examination on the other side of the grave.