A still of Karen Zwi’s interview on 7.30

The ABC’s embarrassing back-down yesterday on claims that a five-year-old had been raped on Nauru came about because an online report drawing from an item on 7.30 mixed up quotes about different children. The February 2 original report on 7.30 itself didn’t claim a five-year-old had been raped. However, further reports, including an introduction to a story the very next night on 7.30 (which also failed to say the claim was “alleged”), a Lateline interview, and discussions on ABC News Radio and News Breakfast repeated the error, as did many other parts of the media.

In a statement, the ABC says the error came about because a reporter conflated quotes about two different cases. “The doctor stands by her statement that [an older] child was allegedly raped on Nauru. She also told our reporters about another of her patients, a five-year-old, who was allegedly sexually assaulted on Nauru.”

The unfortunately timed reversal came after Department of Immigration secretary Michael Pezzullo slammed incorrect reporting on asylum seekers, taking particular aim at the claim that a five-year-old had been raped on Nauru. He said the claim had been investigated by the department, and the child in question was around 10 years old and had been subjected to a “skin-to-skin” sexual contact by another child two years older.

“It’s getting to a point where there is advocacy parading as journalism that is actually deleterious to a sensible discussion about these matters,” Pezzullo said. “We’ve gone beyond journalism when you’ve got certain segments of the media undertaking essentially pamphleteering of almost a political nature and then in that context the facts just get bent.”

The ABC’s source on the claims was paediatrician Karen Zwi, who had treated both children and was speaking to the ABC despite the threat of jail. She said yesterday she stood by her comments to the ABC, as aired on 7.30 last Tuesday. But yesterday at estimates, Pezzullo shrugged off claims anything untoward had happened to a five-year-old asylum seeker. “There is no five-year-old child. It’s a figment.”

Yesterday at estimates was the first direct denial of the story that had been put to the ABC, Crikey has been told. On the night the 7.30 report aired, Lateline host Emma Alberici asked immigration minister Peter Dutton a question mentioning the claim a five-year-old had been raped on Nauru. Dutton did not dispute the premise of the question, saying merely the Australian government wanted allegations “to be properly investigated”. On last night’s 7.30, host Leigh Sales apologised to viewers for an incorrect statement made on 7.30 last Wednesday night — the night after its original report.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey