ABC journalist Louise Milligan (Image: AAP/ James Ross)

Claims made against Four Corners reporter Louise Milligan in Attorney-General Christian Porter’s defamation action show, on one level, how personal the saga has become.

The Federal Court filing made yesterday alleges Milligan “acted with malice” in her reporting of historical rape allegations against Porter, and that she had “engaged in a campaign”.

She was “frustrated” at not being able to broadcast the claims against Porter in Four Corners’ first episode on Canberra culture in November 2020. As a result she had “disingenuously” published an article which didn’t name Porter but sought (with the ABC) to “give effect to their intention to harm him”.

It also claims Milligan had failed to disclose her “close relationships” with friends of the woman who alleged Porter raped her.

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A reporter’s actions are always under scrutiny in a defamation action and for Milligan this is high noon. It is summed up in one sharp line from Porter’s solicitor Rebekah Giles: “If the ABC and Ms Milligan wish to argue the truth of these allegations, they can do so in these proceedings.”

The difficulty for Milligan and the ABC is that it is well nigh impossible to prove the case. So now it’s time to put up or shut up. A cold place to be.

Milligan has been in this sort of territory before in the case of Cardinal George Pell — although she was not sued for defamation.

Milligan had special access to the man who alleged that Pell had sexually assaulted him and another choir boy — in another case involving historical claims. Milligan, through contacts, has had special access to the story of the woman who alleged she was assaulted by Porter.

As in the Porter case, the name of Pell’s victim was not known to the wider public. In the Pell case this is because the man’s identity could not be reported because it was a child sexual assault case.

The High Court ultimately acquitted Pell of his convictions of five sex offences, finding there was “a significant possibility that an innocent person has been convicted” because “the evidence did not establish guilt”.

The lead lawyer in Porter’s defamation action Bret Walker SC also led Pell’s successful High Court appeal. It will not be lost on Walker that Milligan continued to express her belief in the victim’s story despite the High Court’s unanimous finding.

On the day, she tweeted her support for a statement from Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews, who wrote: “I make no comment about today’s High Court decision. But I have a message for every single victim and survivor of child sex abuse. I see you. I hear you. I believe you.”

As it is drawn at the moment, the Porter defamation action is in part emblematic of a clash between belief in a victim’s word and what constitutes evidence in a court of law.

Behind that sits a large cultural divide which has been playing out dramatically in the past several weeks and set alight by claims, from both sides of the debate, of justice denied.

If you or someone you know is impacted by sexual assault or violence, call 1800RESPECT on 1800 737 732 or visit 1800RESPECT.org.au.