At the end of May, I went to Melbourne University to hear the AN Smith Memorial Lecture sponsored by Melbourne University’s Centre for Advancing Journalism, School of Culture and Communication, part of the Faculty of Arts. They always have interesting speakers but this year, especially so, because it was Walter “Robby” Robinson from the Boston Globe.
Most of us were first introduced to Robby through the movie Spotlight – his character played by Michael Keaton. The Boston Globe is the newspaper that disclosed the systemic sexual abuse of children within the Catholic Church in the Boston Diocese and the culture of protecting paedophile priests by the hierarchy of that church.
The topic relevant in today’s Australia (and indeed throughout the world) after the Royal Commission into Child Sexual Abuse set up by the Gillard Government and a redress scheme for the survivors currently being negotiated by the Turnbull Government.
Introduced as a journalist whose career has spanned 34 countries, 48 out of 50 of the United States while working under four different presidents and covering one and a half wars, Robbie looked suitably humble as an eager audience applauded a long and loud welcome.
He began by stating that Boston and Melbourne were sister cities. When there was little reaction he said, ‘Am I the only one who knows that?’ which provoked laughter. (I must admit I didn’t know that!)
Can democracy survive without a strong aggressive press?
Before coming here, he researched Melbourne and read about our ex-mayor. He remembered an interview with Doyle in the USA a few years ago when he encouraged tourists by suggesting when Americans visit they have a great time with their credit cards. With sarcasm, Robbie said, ‘That alone is a good reason to go back to cash.’
He acknowledged and praised three Australian journalists in the room who had exposed child abuse: Louise Milligan, Joanne McCartney and Paul Kennedy.
He had hopes and fears for journalism and the future of democracy which “works well for everyone if journalism works well for everyone.” He believed the suppression laws against the Australian Press are too oppressive.
He had been interviewed and asked to comment on the case of Archbishop Wilson and because it was still before the courts declined to refer to him by name. He was glad Archbishop Wilson was found guilty but unfortunately, the comment he made about him going to prison produced an ABC headline that did not match his careful comments.
It was corrected a couple of days later after he complained but Robby believes the initial reporting is symptomatic of headlines being used as click-bait or sensationalism!
For him, holding the powerful accountable for their actions and the truth is the responsibility of good journalists.
Currently, the Pope and USA President suggest they are both humble men – we know this by the Pope’s actions and the fact the President tells us repeatedly.
(Muted laughter followed this comment and I think it would be reasonable to say finding a supporter for Trump in the room would be like looking for the proverbial needle in a haystack!)
The Boston Globe and Spotlight
Robby then launched into an explanation of the investigation he is most famous for and the background/inspiration to the film Spotlight.
He asserted there was an international conspiracy in covering up child sexual abuse in the Catholic Church – right up to the Pope and powerful others.
There is an international conspiracy regarding Trump but in his eyes, it is caused by the journalists and investigators being stubborn about seeking the truth.
- Catholicism is a major religion in the USA and Australia. About 20% of the population identify as Catholics but not all go to church.
- In 1972, Robby covered the Vietnam War but the horror of the Spotlight story won’t leave him alone –
- he discovered there is evil within the Catholic Church and frequently that Church will do something to replenish this. His sense of outrage is never exhausted!
- When men working in the Lord’s shadow cast children into hell there is not ‘two sides to every story’.
- Accountability is now being taken up to high authority in Australia but not in the USA. In the USA the system is overly deferential to the powerful.
- 2002 – the story broke following five months chipping at a granite wall because the Roman Catholic church had ready access to all levels of political power.
- They were able to make documents disappear from court files. They sat on the shoulders of the Boston elite because in Boston half the population is nominally Catholic.
The journalists accessed 10,000 pages on the one priest – Father John Geoghan, the main subject of Spotlight the movie. Once it was available, within two weeks 105 victims came forward, 400 were in the shadows.
It was revealed Geoghan had been shuffled to six parishes in 30 years!
This proved the Church’s first priority was to avoid public scandal.
Nowhere in the 10,000 pages of reports was there one mention of the children’s welfare. The Church never called the police.
The children didn’t matter!
Documents revealed 10.8% of priests were reported in 60 years – over 250 priests in Boston had molested children. Robby believes if, in any diocese, there is under 8% reported then a cover-up is still happening!
- The Cardinal of Boston knew the predators but let them stay as priests until retirement. Bishops and Cardinals internationally all play from the same script.
- There are reciprocal arrangements to send priests elsewhere.
- They are expert at hiding abuse and protecting priests.
It is refreshing to see Australia is calling to account those in power who knew. He is following Archbishop Pell’s case closely.
When the Boston Globe covered the story it was the dawn of the Internet Age, their stories went viral and victims from all around the country and the world telephoned or emailed them – even from Australia
Pre 2002 there was no wildfire – the power of the Internet got the story noticed nationally and internationally, immediately.
Technology precipitated and has participated in journalism’s financial free fall.
Yes, the Internet spread the story but the Internet has damaged investigative journalism. In the first redundancies, staff went from 550 to 500, the second round another 30 went, and another buy out of the Boston Globe will reduce its size more.
Links in the chain are missing now when it comes to reporting. Many jobs like the court reporting jobs don’t exist. It was the court reporter that first alerted the team to the story.
However, the Spotlight Team initially were four reporters, now they are eleven, including two editors.
Their story showed that people value investigative reporting more than anything – even sport. Readers want reporting that holds the powerful accountable!
The Boston Globe owner is a billionaire. He doesn’t want to make a profit but he’s also not into losing money. Since the Internet half of the journalistic jobs have vanished 25,000 reporters gone.
Along, Came Trump…
“He speaks with conviction, knowing nothing, and without saying anything.”
The tradition of The Anonymous Source is important – we learned that other unstable world leader cancelled the summit (and then it was on again).
November 2016 when Trump started to attack the New York Times and other papers claiming fake news they had one and a half million digital subscribers – now it is 3 million – people want to read a paper they can trust.
Obama used the Espionage Act to flush out whistleblowers but blinked to protect press freedom. Trump thinks journalists are scum – he may not blink!
- He marginalises and demonises journalists.
- He is going after Amazon because the owner of Amazon owns the Washington Post
- He reads fewer books than other presidents have written.
- Winston Churchill said a free press dangerous – not for ordinary citizens!
- Lying is the message of Putin and Trump – lie blatantly to assert power over truth itself.
- Remember Trump had the crowd yell ‘you lock them up’ or ‘lock Hillary up’ – his mantra
- It is the role of the press to protect the public from the excesses of government, not the role of government to protect the supposed excesses of journalism.
Warren Buffett has predicted printed newspapers will vanish; home delivered papers will be as rare as buggy whips.
Quality over Quantity
Remember the four characteristics of media writing
- Robby fears the quality of a lot of online journalism – it’s about generating clicks and contains a lot of spin…
- In the USA the First Amendment has lost some of its lustre
- The Globe doesn’t cover court cases anymore yet that was the origin of the Spotlight investigation.
- The Cable News Network attractive to the public yet dangerous if the only source of news
He believes in a future for investigative reporting but will it do any good can they breathe life into a calcifying democracy?
Democracy is in decline, people are taking freedom for granted.
In the American 2016 Election, 93,047,000 didn’t show up and of 183 million who voted many were ill-informed.
Corruption Unnoticed is Corruption Unchecked
Louise Milligan one of the journalists from the ABC who has reported on child abuse in Australia asked about the confidentiality of the White House briefing. When things are said ‘in confidence’ to a room full of journalists why aren’t they reported when they are in the public’s interest?
Robby admitted that it started with Kissinger under Nixon and ‘everybody hates it’. A horrible tradition. It is a way for senior officials to share whatever secrets or knowledge they have and they’re worried about. But they won’t say it in public – and no journalist will break the tradition – apart from the ‘anonymous Whitehouse spokesperson’ perhaps …
A journalism student asked: Has paedophilia within the church stopped or is the next generation carrying it on?
Robby gave an example of Brazil.
Ten times as many priests were exposed in Boston than Brazil, yet compare those numbers to the size of the Catholic Church and population in Brazil.
The current Pope who is South American took steps regarding the Bishops in Chile but there are many Catholic countries where nothing has been done yet.
This Pope is determined to get the Bishops out of their limousines and the Cardinals out of their Cadillacs but will he be prepared to clean out every single bishop and archbishop?
The Effects of Writing About Child Abuse Do Not Go away
How do you protect yourself from second-hand trauma when reporting on a case like this?
Robby’s answer, ‘Not well!’
His wife, a nurse, and she believes the Spotlight team all suffered PTSD. He is still affected emotionally by the stories – he couldn’t relate one tonight because he knew he would break down. “Maybe I should see a counsellor.”
His honesty about the stress and emotional pain of investigating and reporting the story important to share. I often wonder about the journalists who cover horrific murders or war and disaster stories. There are some images or experiences you can never forget. How do you return to normal life?
Another student asked a question about Rupert Murdoch and Fox News, which is increasingly a mouthpiece for the Whitehouse and Trump.
Robby’s suggestion, “People should wean themselves off cable news!” It is corrupt and they are a powerful potent force. They don’t report news but tell stories and have stories about the news…
If you want to improve journalism and keep it alive you must support the newspapers who still do their job.
I checked my old journalist course notes from when I did my Masters in Writing:
Broadcast news emphasizes the superficial rather than the substantive. It’s too short and too shallow. Pictures or audio drive the story. Critics say broadcast news reporters often pick out the sensational or the most unusual aspect of a story to emphasize rather than what is the most important. “If it bleeds, it leads.”
Broadcast news writers depend on clichés rather than information, particularly to end their stories. Many reporters find an ending that says in effect, “Who knows?” or “We’ll have to wait and see” convenient for ending a story.
For years, the reporter who covered the Supreme Court for National Public Radio would end her stories about cases before the court by saying, “A decision is expected by next summer.” That sentence – besides containing a passive verb construction – tells us nothing since most Supreme Court cases are decided before the court recesses for the summer.
It Takes Resources To Pay Good Investigative Journalists
Robby subscribes to the New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post and he suggests when you read The Guardian send them money like he does. (This got a large round of applause!)
Robby teaches journalism and has done for the last ten years
He believes there will always be good jobs for good students and he finds his students are excited about the digital age and the different platforms available. They are hopeful and not surrounded by doom and gloom.
It used to be when people came to the Newsroom, the old hands taught the new reporters, now it is the young ones teaching all the old Journos the new technology!
Information in a free society is a valuable commodity the next generation will monetise it.
When asked if the Pope is a reforming pope, Robby said he thinks the Pope is wanting to bring an end to clerical culture, the person must come first and he is trying to get the church elite out of their limousine lifestyles.
But change within a church or a religion takes generations and Robby fears it will never make it in several lifetimes.
He is a Catholic and he thought he’d be buried by the church but he is very much a lapsed Catholic and now a golf tragic…
An interesting lecture providing great discussion points for conversation on the way home.
And considering our own ABC, which provides remarkable examples of investigative journalism, is under threat, and yet again, we have The Espionage and Foreign Interference Bill, tightening laws regarding whistleblowing, protesting and data retention – the word that springs to mind is vigilance!