As Collingwood president Eddie McGuire embraced Victorian premier John Brumby with ten minutes to go in the grand final replay on Saturday, as their team streaked to a 50-point lead, he could hardly have foreseen the blizzard of bad PR that has cast a pall over the Pies’ celebrations.

The airing on Monday of troubling rape allegations, followed by his club’s decision to invite the media to photograph players downing beer bongs just hours later, has doused the victory in an ickyness it will struggle to shake.

But for Eddie and Collingwood, there has been one saving grace — the electronic and print media’s decision not to name the players involved, despite their identities being an open secret among journalists and editors since they were revealed on the web on Monday afternoon. Newsrooms have been buzzing, and Twitter has been running hot, but for some strange reason nothing has emerged in the mainstream press, radio or TV.

The Herald Sun has been explicit, telling readers yesterday that it had “chosen not to name the players at this stage”. The Australian has revealed the alleged perpetrators were a duo, “one of whom was a member of Collingwood’s grand final-winning side on Saturday”. The Age reported that “two Collingwood players” have been questioned by police. And the Herald Sun stated later that “another man” from a suburban football club — as distinct from the original duo — was “involved”.

Yesterday, the AFL Players’ Association emerged to say that both players had denied any wrongdoing but bizarrely didn’t say who they were.

There are no legal limits to naming the alleged perpetrators of sexual offences in Victoria, Tasmania, New South Wales, Western Australia and the ACT, if the revelations don’t have the potential to identify the victim. (In South Australia, Queensland and the Northern Territory the media would be on shakier ground because of restrictions on sexual assault reporting: in South Australia the media can only publish with the assent of the accused, while in Queensland and the NT no names can run until the accused is committed for trial).

The sub-judice principle is also irrelevant — the rule only kicks in from the time that police make an arrest.

The blackout is also strange because in nearly every other case of AFL and NRL sexual malfeasance over the last decade the mere fact of police involvement has been more than enough to name the alleged perpetrators.

In December last year, AAP reported on the morning the alleged offence occurred that St Kilda recruit Andrew Lovett was “under police investigation” after the club outed him in a statement.  In the 2004 Milne-Montagna case, there was widespread reporting of the players’ identities well before the charges were dropped. And in March last year, allegations against NRL star Brett Stewart were reported within three days. In September, the Herald Sun claimed Brisbane’s Brendan Fevola was “set to be charged within days” over a drunken night at the 2009 Brownlow Medal under a front-page banner “FEV CHARGE” following allegations he exposed himself at a barbeque.

Six years ago, former Brisbane player Adam Heuskes was named, along with Peter Burgoyne and Michael O’Loughlin, as the three players who contributed to a reported $200,000 payment to an Adelaide woman. O’Loughlin was never charged. And then there’s the celebrated case of rugby league star Matthew Johns, whose name was repeatedly mentioned in relation to gang rape allegations during the hoopla over last year’s Four Corners exposé.

The question Melbourne media insiders are asking is whether the city’s nexus of powerbrokers have tried to browbeat reporters into submission. With the identities of the Collingwood players known, the only possible remaining reason is fear of defamation from identities who have a foot in the media and football camps. Tellingly, there has been no denial of the players named on Monday in other sections of the media — the first step, you would think, if the information floating around on the web was wrong.

But there could also be a general unwillingness to pour too much cold water on the grand final wash-up, with newspapers and the networks grafting huge jumps in circulations and ratings from Saturday’s repeat circus.

Of course, the allegations could amount to nothing, and the mainstream media’s decision to keep its powder dry could be vindicated. But in the meantime, the smears against the victim have already started. Yesterday’s airing of ‘Spida’ Everitt’s noxious views on the subject — that the woman should have known what was coming — was followed by a Herald Sun poll that showed support for Everitt running at 3 to 1.

Peter Fray

Fetch your first 12 weeks for $12

Here at Crikey, we saw a mighty surge in subscribers throughout 2020. Your support has been nothing short of amazing — we couldn’t have got through this year like no other without you, our readers.

If you haven’t joined us yet, fetch your first 12 weeks for $12 and start 2021 with the journalism you need to navigate whatever lies ahead.

Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey

JOIN NOW