Note: This story contains detailed description of sexual assault. It also discusses suicide.
No one does investigative journalism better than Four Corners. The program has been serving the public interest for decades. It holds power to account. It is a vital national institution.
It’s important to say this upfront because if Four Corners can’t nail a story down then, by and large, no one can. If it fails to make a conclusive case then it won’t be for lack of skill or effort or time. It might be because it is simply not possible to do so.
It is also important to say this now because there may well be serious consequences from the program’s work on Attorney-General Christian Porter and historical allegations of rape which aired on Monday night.
The Morrison government was furious after Four Corners last year shone a light on the treatment meted out to young female staffers, with cabinet ministers Alan Tudge and Porter in the frame.
The government demanded that ABC chair Ita Buttrose answer its claims of anti-Liberal bias in the report and accused the board of not enforcing the ABC’s code of practice on fair treatment and impartiality.
Can you imagine the reaction of the ABC haters inside the government now after the exposure of the Porter rape claims?
Scott Morrison is resolutely backing Porter. Communications Minister Paul Fletcher is not saying anything publicly for the moment. Perhaps they are waiting for the furore to move on.
Inq asked if Buttrose was satisfied with Four Corners’ coverage. Answer: yes. We were told, though, that she had no comment on whether or not the coverage might have damaged the ABC’s relationship with the government, with possible consequences for funding or policy.
It’s not something an independent broadcaster should have to be concerned about. But these aren’t normal times. And these aren’t normal allegations.
There had been pressure for Four Corners to deliver a more conclusive case against Porter last Monday, given the many months that have passed since the program first became involved. But in reality how could it?
Ultimately it traversed the allegations against Porter and his denials without finding a smoking gun. Fairness will be in the eye of the beholder.
It is well established that sexual assault is one of the most — if not the most — difficult offences to successfully prosecute. A 2011 study by the Australian Institute of Family Studies found about 85% of sexual assaults never come to the attention of the criminal justice system.
“Of those offences that are reported,” the study said, “only a small proportion proceed to trial, with an even smaller percentage of these cases resulting in a successful conviction.”
Factors weighing against a successful conviction included: a low rate of reporting offences; attrition of sexual assault cases at various stages of the justice system and trial procedure; distrust of survivors by the criminal justice system; a belief in sexual assault myths and stereotypes.
This year has seen a rare example that confounds this reality. The case of former Liberal staffer Brittany Higgins has been a powerful and clear example of Liberal Party culture in action: a young woman speaking publicly about an alleged rape by a male staffer in a ministerial office in Parliament House two years ago — accompanied by an apparent lack of action from the top.
It’s now in the hands of the ACT Police.
As stories go this was about as unimpeachable as it gets. (And, it should be noted, was the work of News Corp’s Samantha Maiden with cooperation with the Ten network’s The Project.)
The Porter story, by contrast, is a mire of (now) unprovable propositions, no matter how long you look at it. The allegations stem from more than 30 years ago. There was never a signed police statement. The woman at the centre of it all, Kate, asked police not to pursue the investigation, citing medical and personal reasons. She is no longer alive.
Kate endured episodes of mental illness while at times earning a living as a historian and author. As Four Corners reported, she suffered from an eating disorder as a teenager. She was diagnosed with bipolar disorder — exactly when is not known.
She spent time in and out of mental health facilities including up to just before her death. She had, according to the program, also made several suicide attempts. The NSW Police have alluded to her concerns about “dissociating” when she first met with them.
Her lawyer-prepared statement refers to her “dissociating badly in order to cope” during the night of the alleged attacks. NSW Police Commissioner Mick Fuller said the case might not have made it to court even if she was alive.
These details are relevant, not to discredit Kate but to assess what weight can be given to the allegations, given that there is, very publicly, an alleged perpetrator: the attorney-general of Australia.
Whatever you think of Porter there are real life consequences of being accused of horrific crimes for which there is no legal-level permissible evidence and no way out. But given the facts that are known, was it ever going to be possible, decades on, to make a case against him?
A dossier including Kate’s story contains what have been called “contemporaneous notes”, thus possibly providing a form of corroboration. The alleged events occurred in January 1988. The three sets of notes start 12 months later and cover the years 1989, 1991 and 1991-92. Few people have seen them in their entirety.
Whatever story the notes tell, they cannot constitute proof in a court of law — as has been well reported.
Yet they do tell a story. Exactly what that is might emerge via the South Australian coroner. Or it might be via a form of inquiry. Or not at all. And we need to underline that Porter has vehemently denied any of it.
A transcribed version of a 1989 note, 12 months on from the alleged events, records the words: “Porter will say I led him on — did I? Said NO. I said NO. To the blow job. He never asked about the rest. Just did it and took what he wanted. Me. My virginity. My voice. What a prick.”
Inq has seen a copy of Kate’s original notes made in 1991. It shows an account with a mix of capitals and lower case words in loosely connected phrases and written in a circular pattern with the words ultimately finishing in a jumble. The document speaks of a troubled mind showing flashes of the brilliant young debater her friends knew.
It shows she is wondering whether to confide in a former boyfriend with some remarks addressed to herself: “He loved me? In Aug 88. In Jan 89 … He won’t cut himself on his mind’s razor sharp edges the way you do on yrs … Cash that cheque girl.”
She had also spoken of an alleged assault, without naming anyone, to a romantic partner in 1988 and 1989.
The Black Dog Institute says bipolar disorder, as with many mental illnesses, can be caused by an extremely stressful life event. But Black Dog reports the illness is frequently inherited, with genetic factors accounting for approximately 80% of the cause of the condition.
The written notes do not capture any of the gruesome detail alleged to have taken place on that night in January 1988. These emerged more 30 years later, coinciding with time Kate spent in therapy. Her 2020 statement for police acknowledged the influence of a popular psychology book, given to her by her psychologist, advocating the idea that trauma can “resurface” in the mind.
“I had not previously heard of it, nor had I read it,” her statement says. “[American psychiatrist] Bessel van der Kolk explains that for survivors of torture and trauma our bodies will store traumatic events and only allow them to resurface when our minds are able to re-examine them, usually several decades later.”
Kate wrote in her 2020 account of the historical events that she always had a memory of the night.
Her 2020 statement goes on to include alarming depictions of Porter as a sadistic sex predator. The then 17-year-old is recalled as engaging in a ritual of washing the teenage girl’s hair twice before allegedly assaulting her. He is accused of shaving her legs and under her arms. Of cleaning her teeth for her after she vomited. Of Porter scrawling a “Christian Porter was ‘ere” message on the steam-covered mirror. She feared he might choke her to death at one point. It is the most complete version of what is alleged to have happened.
None of this vivid detail, however, had been mentioned in notes made closer to the time of the attack.
Do these elements which appeared later constitute a repressed memory? A reconstruction of events decades down the track?
The Four Corners story did not explore this part of the narrative — although it is important to understanding the extreme outrage against Porter-as-monster that has brought public anger to fever pitch.
At this point I would like to clarify my own reporting. Kate said in her statement that she has “always remembered these things”, referring to the night in 1988.
My focus has been on the large number of horrific details which appear to have emerged for the first time 32 years after the event and to ask a journalist’s questions about how these memories arose. It is a question for which there are no clear answers.
And it is all the more important to ask these questions because the level of attack we have seen without conventional standards of proof is unprecedented in Australia’s public life.
It is also worth pointing out that Kate’s parents, who first heard details of the alleged assault in 2019, had concerns about the reliability of her claims and worried she might have confected or embellished them. This, though, has been shaded out of some reporting. (Kate had been estranged from her parents at times throughout her life.) Her parents have also let it be known they want an inquiry.
So was it ever possible for Four Corners (or Inq for that matter) to publish a story naming Porter without being sued? Impossible — or the program would have.
As it turned out the only way to get the allegations into the public domain without being sued is what ended up occurring: an anonymous group put together an anonymous document which named Porter and provided that to a small group of politicians. As far as the public was concerned, though, the claims related only to an unnamed cabinet minister — until Porter named himself.
The approach worked — but at a cost. It has fed into a raging and ultimately destructive narrative that people in public life aren’t to be trusted. By failing to name one person it tarred all (male) members of the cabinet with the same brush. Too bad, you might say. But for some it will be one more reason to be disillusioned with the governing class.
Journalistically it is questionable to get around a lack of proof by the device of blaming so many people you can’t get sued by any one of them. But it is done.
And what of criticism aired on the ABC of the behaviour of News Corp titles and Sky after dark?
Journalists Paul Kelly and Peter van Onselen (who has declared he is a friend of Porter), writing for The Australian, made cogent arguments against the blanket smear of politicians — and the anonymous smear of Porter in particular.
They have advocated scepticism of the narrative produced by the anonymous campaign group which has passed information to selected journalists and which has done a good job at manipulating coverage.
There have been no real winners in the Porter saga. Well-intentioned people have set off to gain justice for a treasured, troubled friend. But it hasn’t worked — yet — as Morrison refuses to buckle on an inquiry.
Innocent or guilty, Porter may well be destroyed. Kate has died alone, a tortured soul. Her parents deal with the incalculable grief of losing their daughter after watching her live with the ravages of mental illness.
Where is the central failure in all this?
This is a horrific story of unresolved sexual assault allegations. But it is also the tragedy of a woman who has lived with mental illness over decades. We know little of her life from the mid-1990s to 2013 when, according to Four Corners, she made her first disclosure in therapy about allegedly being raped by a male called “Christian” (a now untestable allegation).
But we do know she has been through a system which is underfunded and facing more and more demand for trauma services. Fixing at least this — and ensuring trauma is properly handled — is something we all have a stake in, even the male, pale and (allegedly) stale among us.
David Hardaker was a Four Corners reporter for a number of years and has worked with members of the current staff, both at Four Corners and elsewhere in the ABC.
If you or someone you know is impacted by sexual assault or violence, call 1800RESPECT on 1800 737 732 or visit 1800RESPECT.org.au.