Sydney Morning Herald writer Paul Sheehan has today said he should not have written a column containing detailed allegations about a gang rape in Sydney without checking whether it was true.
Sheehan: ‘foundation of embellishments , false memories and fabrications’
Sheehan’s column, which was published on Monday, alleged that Sydney police had failed to act on the woman’s allegations in which she claimed to have been the victim of a rape gang in 2002 featuring men speaking Arabic.
In his original piece, Sheehan quoted alleged victim “Louise” as using the term “MERC – Middle Eastern raping c—s”. The piece also included explicit details of the humiliating ordeal the woman was alleged to have experienced. The level of detail went far further than would usually be the case in a newspaper.
In today’s column, Sheehan said that it has since emerged that the woman made similar claims of rape at rallies organised by the radical anti-Islam group Reclaim Australia. He writes: “I had not considered the possibility that her story had been carefully constructed on a foundation of embellishments, false memories and fabrications.”
Sheehan has previously linked gang rapes with a “cultural timebomb” centred on Middle Eastern immigration to Australia.
The column has now been removed from Fairfax Media’s websites and rewritten with most of the claims made by the woman, along with the racial slurs, removed. A correction has also been published.
This correction now appears on the original, rewritten column
The Sheehan controversy has a number of parallels with an infamous episode of journalism in the US just over a year ago in which Rolling Stone magazine reported details of an alleged gang rape on a university campus based on the testimony of a single alleged victim “Jackie” without proper fact-checking.
The 2014 article was later retracted by the publication and labelled “the worst journalism of 2014”.
The original column began to fall apart within hours of it being published, with the alleged victim no longer taking his calls. Sheehan writes:
“At 6pm on Monday I had a heart-sinking conversation with Louise, the woman who was the subject of my column that day.
“In my third conversation with her that afternoon, as I was saying that she needed to talk to the police about the gang rape she alleged took place in 2002, she told me I was ‘oppressing’ her.
“Then she said: ‘I don’t want to continue this conversation,’ and hung up.
In today’s article, Sheehan said he owed an apology to NSW Police for claiming they had failed to investigate the woman’s allegations. He said: “I acknowledge that there was not enough definite information to justify writing the story”
In his defence, Sheehan said he had Googled the woman’s name before publication and hadn’t found anything that made him doubt her claims. He writes:
“The default position in listening to claims of sexual assault is empathy, but for journalists empathy has to be accompanied by an interrogatory quest for detail, consistency and conviction.
“She did provide detail, consistency and conviction. She did speak with an authentic voice about the milieu of homelessness, drug addiction and prostitution in and around Kings Cross and Darlinghurst.
“She did address the fact that she had psychological problems.”
“In the story recounted to me by Louise, she made insulting references to rapes committed by Middle Eastern men. I had wrongly amplified this insult by including her words in the column.
“Had I known on Sunday what I knew by Wednesday, the column would not have been written. Hindsight has a ruthless clarity.”
In 2006, Sheehan wrote the book Girls Like You: Four young girls, six brothers and a cultural timebomb.
At the time a review of the book in his own newspaper said of his writing: “He links the Cronulla riots to the rape cases and asks ‘how many other cultural time bombs were ticking amid the Muslim male population living within the liberality of Australia’. This seems to imply that Muslim men are more prone to violence, sexual or otherwise.”