Journalism

Feb 29, 2016

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.

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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.

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16 comments

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16 thoughts on “How Fairfax and Paul Sheehan bought the lies told by “Louise”

  1. Saugoof

    Sheehan is really the George Costanza of Australian media. It’s not a lie if you really, really want it to be true.

  2. lloydois

    Such an extraordinary lapse of editorial process at every level. How the SMH can continue to employ Sheehan defies belief. If this standard of journalism is acceptable to them then they really have no standards.

  3. Sean

    I don’t expect anything better from Sheehan, but the point is that the editors shouldn’t have either. They should have done the basic checks themselves if their prima donna clickbait writer wasn’t forthcoming.

  4. Roen Davis

    Paul’s confirmation bias stole the show . . . .

  5. paddy

    Let’s face it, while Sheehan stuffed this up right royally, the real heads that should roll are editorial.
    Not going to happen at the clusterf*ck that is the SMH.

  6. Bob the builder

    “unblemished record” … !

    I never read much of Sheehan, just another PVC (pompous, vacuous, c***), but after the “magic water” farce, I never read another word. It’s an appalling indictment of Fairfax that he works there, let alone as a “senior” writer.

    I’m amazed that he’s still got a job. It seems Mike Carleton got his marching orders (I mean “resigned”) for far less, though it wasn’t Muslims he was having a go at, was it?

  7. Scott Grant

    Perhaps Paul should move to the Ministry of Truth at Holt Street. There he will be in the company of many with an equal disregard for “facts” or “truth”, and rather than apologising the paper would almost certainly devote pages of newsprint to defending one of their own, no matter how egregious the offence.

    I really, really, fail to understand how he has kept his job at Fairfax over so many years of repetitive incompetence. I guess he must appeal to a certain type of reader.

  8. Kevin Herbert

    This is the kind of mistake that a young, inexperienced D grade journo might make, but it would be picked up by competent editorial staff.

    Just like Paddy, Shawn et al above, I agree that the total failure of the editorial process is the big lesson here.

    This is the same failure that underpins some of the other woeful Fairfax editorial judgements on matters such as Syria, Putin & Israel.

  9. mikeb

    Even a rookie would have had doubts at that wild story. Sheehan just wanted to believe it. It’s a shame because not only does it vilify an entire culture but it tars legitimate complaints with the same brush.

  10. Dog's Breakfast

    “he absolved his publisher of responsibility, while intimating his unblemished record ensured his editors overlooked any factual concerns. ”

    Really?? Unblemished record???

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