Just when you thought things could not get any worse in the awful mess that is the Lehrmann matter, one of the most eminent jurists in the land decides that leaking to journalists is the best outcome for his board of inquiry findings.
It was revealed last week that the Sofronoff inquiry’s report had been released under embargo to selected national media ahead of the ACT Government or any of the parties named, by the man who headed the inquiry himself.
Once again, it appears, the Territory’s governance, laws and resources come a distant second to the dazzling lure of national news. Once again, the decision to put the media ahead of procedural fairness has blown up in everyone’s face.
The Australian published a detailed story on the Sofronoff findings last Wednesday night. The masthead says it did not breach the embargo but obtained the report from “different sources”. The ABC was also provided with the report before even the police, whose actions were central to the inquiry.
Walter Sofronoff, KC, is an eminent jurist with impeccable credentials. He was appointed to head the board of inquiry into allegations of interference in the Lehrmann matter, called for by Director of Public Prosecutions Shane Drumgold.
The fact the inquiry might qualify as the legal own goal of the century is surely not lost on the DPP, who appears to have been captivated by his own involvement to the detriment of his legal judgment, although the board of inquiry report apparently endorses his decision to prosecute the sexual assault allegations.
Attorney General Shane Rattenbury announced yesterday that Mr Drumgold had tendered his resignation. Mr Drumgold has vigorously denied any wrongdoing and also deserves procedural fairness.
Mr Sofronoff’s decision to release his findings to two national news outlets – The Australian and the ABC – before the ACT Government and the rest of the press is extraordinary.
Once again in this entire sorry saga, playing to the national media appears to have trumped any sense of due process or justice for all parties.
Mr Sofronoff has been silent since revealing himself as the source of the leak. He’s understood to have provided the ACT Government with a rationale for his decision, based on the belief that leaking embargoed content to selected media outlets would enable them to accurately and extensively report on the inquiry’s findings when the report was released.
But the events surrounding the Lehrmann matter took place wholly in the ACT and involved the ACT’s legal officers and resources. These are funded, ultimately, by the ACT taxpayer. These are our resources, our public funds, our officials.
The Australian’s Janet Albrechtsen and the ABC’s Elizabeth Byrne are highly experienced journalists. But they are far from alone in reporting diligently on the Lehrmann matter’s twists and turns. A public report should be a public report.
Certainly, the ACT Government was naive in believing it could sit on the report and digest it when the matter has been the subject of so much feverish debate for so long.
Opposition leader Elizabeth Lee has described the attempt to hold onto the findings as “absolutely unfathomable”, and Geoffrey Watson, SC, a director of the Centre for Public Integrity, also called for the report’s immediate release which will now take place this week.
At every step of the way since the sexual assault allegations were first made, through the imbroglio of Lisa Wilkinson’s Logies speech, Brittany Higgins’ Press Club speech before the matter went to court, to the aborted sexual assault trial, various players have been so dazzled by the prospect of national attention they’ve waved due process to one side.
It seems barely credible that a former Justice of the Supreme Court of Queensland, Justice of the Court of Appeal of Queensland and President of the Queensland Court of Appeal, a veteran of multiple inquiries from the Grantham floods to the forensic DNA testing, would join their ranks.