How Fairfax and Paul Sheehan bought the lies told by “Louise”
Fairfax has today apologised for publishing the story of "Louise", who said she'd been raped by Middle Eastern men. But alarm bells should have been ringing long before the article went to print, write Nicky Bryson and Myriam Robin.
A week after the story of "Louise", who claimed she had been gang-raped by Middle Eastern men, was first splashed on the front page, and four days after Paul Sheehan acknowledged how it all fell apart, The Sydney Morning Herald this morning broke its silence on how one of its senior writers published a story of horrific abuse and bureaucratic indifference that was, probably, false. But the paper maintains Sheehan's line that "key elements of the story were unable to be substantiated", despite the wealth of evidence that the story told to Sheehan was highly unlikely, and should have raised red flags for both Sheehan and his editors.
The paper stated at the bottom of page 2 this morning:
"In last Monday's paper, the Herald reported the details of an alleged sexual assault under the headline, 'The horrifying untold story of 'Louise',
"A subsequent column printed in last Thursday's edition ... acknowledged key elements of the original story were unable to be substantiated. The original story, which has been corrected, included aspersions against the Middle Eastern community and raised untested allegations of inaction against the NSW Police. The Herald sincerely regrets the hurt and distress this report caused to these groups and unreservedly apologises."
The story highlights a startling case of journalistic error, made all the more significant because it came from such a senior writer and was taken seriously enough to put on the front page of Australia's most trusted newspaper.
Sheehan has apologised several times in the past week, and got on the front foot admitting his error before Fairfax's competitors got wind of it. He has been relatively transparent about the reasons why he came to believe 'Louise's' story despite little corroborating evidence. But if he had not, it is likely the scandal would have come out anyway. In the days immediately following the story's initial publication, many on social media noted that aspects of it seemed far-fetched. The similar claims made by a woman in several Reclaim Australia rallies were recalled. Some, like Richard Cooke, who tried to contact 'Louise' wrote that they found her a difficult subject who was unable to give journalists ways to validate her story.
Despite Fairfax's apology today, Sheehan has said the fault for the column was his alone. In an interview with The Australian last week, he absolved his publisher of responsibility, while intimating his unblemished record ensured his editors overlooked any factual concerns. “The foundational error I made, from which all flaws in the process came, was that I was put in touch with the woman by a good source, who I trusted, on the basis that she wanted justice,” he said.
Sheehan continues clinging to his claim he was hoodwinked by a “carefully constructed” story “on a foundation of embellishments, false memories and fabrications.” He defended his lack of research telling The Australian, “We knew the column would have to make clear that these were allegations and her name were not in the police or hospital system over this matter.”
Despite Sheehan's claims that this was fundamentally a case of misplaced trust, the very first red flag casting doubts on the story were there in his first dispatch.