17 February 2024

Letter from the Editor: the judge, the journalist and the "teenage crush" paid for by the ACT

| Genevieve Jacobs
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Janet Albrechtsen.

Janet Albrechtsen. Photo: Janet Albrechtsen Twitter/X.

Here’s how privilege and influence plays out.

As the nation’s media fixated on the Lehrmann matter, and the subsequent Board of Inquiry into actions taken by the ACT’s top prosecutor, Shane Drumgold, we now know Walter Sofronoff KC exchanged many hundreds of messages with The Australian’s Janet Albrechtsen.

Over several months the exchange averaged 1.6 emails per day, from Ms Albrechtsen’s first contact with the distinguished former judge to the time he handed in the report commissioned and paid for by the ACT Government (which he’d given to Ms Albrechtsen some time earlier).

Mr Drumgold wants either Mr Sofronoff’s report into the prosecution of Bruce Lehrmann, or the findings it made about him, to be declared invalid or unlawful after his career was effectively destroyed by them. A substantial part of his case is that Mr Sofronoff had an established bias against him.

The court heard Ms Albrechtsen, primarily an opinion columnist rather than a court reporter, had persistently written adverse articles about Mr Drumgold. A reasonable observer could decide her extensive contact with Mr Sofronoff throughout the course of the inquiry, had “infected” him with her opinions, influencing adverse findings against Mr Drumgold, his lawyers said.

Make no mistake, Ms Albrechtsen scored a real coup. All credit goes to her initiative in getting the Board of Inquiry head on the hook and keeping him there for months. She did nothing wrong and was perfectly entitled to write up the matter however she chose.

Not so Mr Sofronoff, who was being paid by the ACT Government, not News Corp.

READ ALSO ‘Got a minute?’ Walter Sofronoff’s text to Janet Albrechtsen involved ‘familiarity’, barrister claims

Along with other Canberra news organisations, Region Media covered the Lehrmann trial and the subsequent Board of Inquiry in detail. Three competent and experienced journalists took it in turn to sit through many weeks of evidence either in court or via video link.

We published dozens of stories, read by tens of thousands of people, on the basis of public interest and public responsibility to our readers, the ACT’s taxpayers.

So how much contact did any of our journalists have with Mr Sofronoff?

Zero. Absolutely zero.

Rather than exchanging cheery texts and lengthy phone calls, Region staff and dozens of other journalists had to go through a third party intermediary with any queries.

There was possibly the offer of an explanatory meeting that never materialised. There was no evidence of a proper media strategy, commonly organised to ensure cases of major public interest are reported accurately.

While court and tribunal reporters in the ACT often work collaboratively and with real respect for each other, this time the locals were mostly left out in the cold.

READ ALSO AFP’s investigation into PwC continues, but the firm’s contracts with the Federal Police do not

After Mr Sofronoff decided Ms Albrechtsen’s persistence merited receiving the report before the Chief Minister had laid eyes on it I also wrote to him.

“The matters surrounding the Lehrmann case and subsequent Board of Inquiry relate to events wholly within the ACT, involving the ACT’s legal officers and resources, funded by ACT taxpayers. It’s quite extraordinary to have privileged The Australian, in particular, as a commercial media organisation ahead of anyone else in this community,” my email said.

“Surely the proper course of action would have been to inform the ACT Government initially and follow this with a press release distributed simultaneously to all outlets?

“It’s most disappointing that the distribution of these findings was not handled with more respect for the community that’s borne so much of the cost in every way.”

It won’t come as a surprise, dear readers, that this communication was also met with echoing silence.

Ms Albrechtsen can congratulate herself on unprecedented access to one of the hottest news stories in years, however she got it. But Mr Sofronoff behaved more like a bedazzled teenager with a crush than a former judge and Queensland Solicitor General.

This week’s legal proceedings have revealed in some depth just how captured Mr Sofronoff was by the thrill of national attention, and how contemptuous he was of the ACT Government and the ACT taxpayer.

That’s unfortunate because as the whole disastrous mess rolls on, we continue to be the ones who pay for most of it.

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Martin Keast3:00 pm 24 Feb 24

The real concern is what this whole sordid episode including the actions of the public prosecutor says about how well our justice and policing system is working here in the ACT. Recently there was a report on our Chief Justice who says she acknowledges “this land has never been ceded” by Indigenous people, does she mean the law ought to recognise their claim over Australia? IOW there is a lot of bias and poor process evident, yet the ACT Government maintains there is nothing to see here. When the rule of law becomes unreliable, biased, or gives the appearance of being so, then we ought to be concerned as our national wellbeing rests, in part, on an impartial judiciary and just processes by our police and prosecutorial officers.

Dear Editor, why put your opinion piece so far down the list? Why not put it front and top? But let’s ALL get this straight in our minds please. Your argument is that because the ACT ALP/Communist Green government piad for the Sofronoff enquiry he had to find what the ACT Government wanted him to find? Failing that first step Sofronoff had to allow the ACT Government to put their spin on his findings before anyone else could see an either redacted copy or more likely a heavily censored version of it, correct? Well Sofronoff didn’t have those secrecy provisions in his brief so he legitimately released it to a journalist he knew would publish it in full and not any of the ALP cheer squad that masquerade as journalists in Canberra, including you it seems dear Editor because this is your 3rd or 4th piece on this heavily conflated event. There was no crime and you are attempting to call into question the ethics of former court bench member.

Oh dear Rob, your political biases are obvious by the 4th sentence, so no need for anyone to take seriously anything you say, as it’s all twisted by your view of the ACT govt. Whilst many of us might agree with your view of this awful government, it is clear that Sofronoff’s behaviour was unwise, unethical and ill-informed, as well as biased and even nasty.

His motivations are unknown (despite you thinking you can read his mind and know his intent) because he has not been honest in his statements, unless he unrealistically believes (despite the evidence) that he was fair and objective. Some of the conclusions he reached on Drumgold’s motivations (intention dishonesty?) are beyond his expertise to reach (he is not a mind-reader) and there has been no clear exposure of evidence to prove them.

It is much more likely that Drumgold meant well, was trying to do the best job he could and saw what we all saw, failures by Parliamentary security and police (which Sofronoff acknowledges) apparent hiding or shaping of of evidence by the actions of various parties. If Drumgold worried about this and wanted to ensure that all was exposed, his actions make sense, however unwise. However, none of us can read his mind to know exactly what he was thinking, although any person familiar with sexual abuse reporting, police response and court processes might understand his concerns.

It is worth remembering that you can see behaviour and make assumptions about it’s reasons, but you cannot see what is going on in someone’s mind. You assume it, based on your own beliefs and perceptions, shaped by your own experience.

Sofronoff’s experience was clearly affected and influenced by Janet Albrechtson’s contact with him (in the same way that any biased research influences people’s thinking), whether he was aware of that or not. Denial is a common defence. He was NOT objective and his role was to provide a report to the ACT government. After meeting that commitment, he could have commented as he wished on his experience if he was concerned about spin.

William Newby3:26 am 18 Feb 24

So many careers destroyed over this case, there are a good many people out there that probably wish Higgins and Chardonnay had never crossed their path.

HiddenDragon10:30 pm 17 Feb 24

To the extent that there were any trangressions, whether substantive, perceived or assumed in Mr Sofronoff’s handling of the inquiry it could quite reasonably be seen as a case of “when in Rome….” and grounds for recognition as an honorary Canberran –


@ hidden dragon. Such action is not good enough for a judge who must be seen to be impartial, open and ethical in his conduct whilst doing his job.

Especially when his role is to investigate another member of the judiciary who is being questioned about the ethics of his actions.

Terrence O\'Brien3:49 pm 17 Feb 24

That’s the silliest opinion I’ve read on this sorry case. Albrechtsen asked more questions than other journalists and made better use of a wide range o sources because she trained and worked as a lawyer and has a longstanding interest the rule of law. The rest of the media were asleep at the wheel.

@Terrence O\’Brien
Perhaps you need to re-read the article. The author has not criticised Albrechtsen. The author states the fault lies with Sofronoff giving cause for concern over his impartiality in the conduct of an inquiry he was conducting. Particularly his ongoing communication, throughout the conduct of said inquiry, with a journalist who had very forthright opinions about one of the individuals Sofronoff was investigating.
If you think that’s a silly opinion you obviously have no interest in the preservation of the impartiality of the judiciary.

Impartiality is what people are interested in justsaying. Sofronoff knew his findings would never see the light of day had the ACT Government had their way. So how do you get around that? You release it to journalists who won’t doctor the findings (Albrechtson). He did the right thing and all the editor is against here by the repeated opinion pieces is that the ACT Government didn’t get the chance to spin or bury the findings.

Releasing a report to a journalist before releasing it to those who commissioned it is not the right thing to do. Trusting Sofronoff to do the job for which he is commissioned is going to be difficult for many people after this.

Giving that report to a person who calls herself a journalist, but who is well known for lacking objectivity and instead being highly opinionated in a particular direction, is not the right thing to do.

Sofronoff has been criticised by other judges and lawyers for his actions which could be seen to bring the profession into disrepute, if this was a new issue. It isn’t new, but it does confirm the worst of what many already thought of lawyers. Many in the profession are very angry about this.

Thanks Genevieve. Your article says it all. Mr Sofronoff’s behaviour was totally inappropriate, self-serving and legally and professionally unsound – and I hope he never gets another legal job of this kind – in fact of any kind!

Capital Retro10:06 am 17 Feb 24

Of course, Katharine Murphy’s positive opinions of PM Albanese had nothing to with her recent appointment to his office and we are paying for that, too.

@Capital Retro
What planet are you on, CR?

What has Katharine Murphy/Albo got to do with this article?

Capital Retro9:03 am 18 Feb 24

The article’s headline suggests a similitude.

Weren’t you taught free-thinking at whatever proletarian school you went to?

Well for a start the similarities in the story @justsaying. All around political influence and political appointments within beaurocracies, especially the court system in this case. Almost ALL by one side of politics. When you constantly do this the aptitude/intelligence of the appointees steadily declines until it becomes ” jobs for the boys” as in Victoria, Queensland and especially the ACT. You don’t improve the the beaurocracies by political appointments to them, you make them worse and actually incapable of offering fearless and frank advice to the government of the day.

@Capital Retro
I was definitely taught free thinking at school and I took it on board, unlike you who are so shallow in your thinking, that you allow a ‘click bait’ headline to be the basis on which you form an opinion.

I suggest you read the whole article, CR, and because the only similitude is the one you have fabricated in your fantasy world.

How is the fact that a journalist takes a job in the PMs office, a similar “story” to the 273 behind-the-scenes communications between a journalist and the head of a Board of Inquiry, during the conduct of that inquiry?
As for the rest of your comment – relevance to the article?

You hit the nail on the head Ms Jacobs. The treatment of his employer, the ACT Government, was appallingly dismissive and contemptuous at best.

His favours to the Murdoch press also showed an extraordinary lack of judgement — something that surely was the opposite of what we paid for!

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