union movement the age
(Image: AAP/Joe Castro)

When I saw The Age recently go hard on the “immoral and unethical” workers’ compensation system in Victoria, I thought of “journalist YZ“, who developed PTSD covering crime and courts for the newspaper for ten years.

YZ, given the acronym so she could remain anonymous, reached a private settlement with The Age over her own workers’ compensation claim in March. The Age fought her for six years. Its workers’ comp insurer EML had the former journalist examined by five psychiatrists. 

YZ took a redundancy from The Age in late 2013 when nightmares, panic attacks and other symptoms of PTSD made it difficult to function. 

In addition to covering more than 30 homicides — including Melbourne’s “gangland war” and the murder of four-year-old Darcey Freeman, thrown by her father from the West Gate Bridge in 2009 — YZ reported on other fatalities, funerals and disasters.

After complaining she was done with “death and destruction” in 2010, YZ was transferred to the sports desk. But before long and against her wishes a senior editor told her that she was being reassigned to the Supreme Court round. This meant covering dozens of horrific court cases, including the trial of Freeman’s father and the murders of several other children.

The Age contested whether YZ was suffering from post-traumatic stress and denied knowing there was a foreseeable risk of psychological injury to its journalists during a three-week hearing in Victoria’s County Court in late 2018. It simultaneously argued that YZ knew “by reason of her work she was at high risk of foreseeable injury”.

Counsel for The Age cross-examined YZ for five straight days, while YZ’s newborn baby was looked after in a court side room.

“It was the longest, most brutal cross-examination I’ve ever seen,” said YZ’s lawyer Bree Knoester, a high-profile expert in media trauma. “Ninety percent of my clients would not have held up.”

The trial judge ruled in YZ’s favour in February 2019, the first time any news organisation in the world had been found negligent for failing to protect a journalist from psychological injury. 

“In the modern workplace, there is a positive duty upon the employer to take active steps to prevent the risk of foreseeable injury,” Judge Chris O’Neil said. He awarded YZ $180,000 in damages for psychological suffering. She did not seek economic losses. 

The Age, part of the Nine multi-media network, appealed.

Last December the Court of Appeal upheld part of the lower court decision — that The Age was negligent and in breach of its duty of care to YZ from 2010-13, when she’d been given little choice to cover the Supreme Court. In other words The Age was, during that period, on notice about YZ’s mental health. The Court of Appeal did not uphold the judge’s verdict relating to the 2003-10 time period.

“At the heart of the Court of Appeal decision was a finding of negligence … They said the breach occurred during a specific time,” said Knoester. “We always believed that YZ had not been adequately protected by her employer and the finding that she was not still remains, despite the appeal. This remains a win for YZ. It’s never been about damages.”

The appeal court ordered The Age and YZ to go back before the County Court to determine if the damages would be altered. The two sides then reached a private settlement.

“It nearly broke me,” YZ told me. “During the County Court trial, I was forced to relive a lot of the trauma I’d been exposed to. Many family and friends had to give evidence, and The Age’s lawyers even went as far as subpoenaing my [employee assistance program] counselling records, which Age management had constantly assured staff were completely confidential sessions. That’s how desperate they were.”

YZ said she wanted to prove that The Age breached its duty of care towards her. She wanted to change the way The Age and other media organisations treated journalists repeatedly exposed to trauma so other reporters didn’t have to suffer like she had.

I asked YZ if The Age had ever apologised to her. She laughed and said: “No, but plenty of colleagues I worked with got in touch after reading the County Court decision to express their disgust at the way I’d been treated.”

Despite everything, YZ said she was pleased that The Age had been reporting some of the flaws in the Victorian workers’ compensation scheme.

“Hopefully, these stories will help lead to much-needed changes so people injured at work can receive the treatment they need and the compensation they are entitled to so they can get better, get back to work and get on with the rest of their lives as soon as possible,” she said. “No one should have to go through years of hell to get justice.”

A spokesperson for The Age told Crikey: “The Age, and parent company Nine, takes the mental welfare of its employees seriously and has a range of support and training measures in place to ensure the wellbeing of our people. Nine’s wellbeing strategy forms a core part of Nine’s workplace health and safety strategy demonstrating a significant investment by Nine to enhance the approach we take to safeguarding our people.”

Those measures include training with the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma, vicarious trauma sessions hosted by Nine’s EAP provider Converge, and mental health first aid training, the spokesperson said.

Dean Yates was a journalist at Reuters for 23 years until he was diagnosed with PTSD in early 2016. He was head of mental health and wellbeing strategy at Reuters for nearly three years until January 2020.