6 February 2024

Sofronoff's love affair with the media blurs the lines even more

| Ian Bushnell
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walter sofronoff

Board of Inquiry chair Walter Sofronoff KC: his reported communications with journalists are not a good look. Photo: Screenshot.

What on earth was Walter Sofronoff doing allegedly calling journalists while he was chairing a Board of Inquiry into the behaviour of former ACT DPP Shane Drumgold during the aborted trial of Bruce Lehrmann for the alleged rape of Brittany Higgins?

Lawyers for Mr Drumgold, who is challenging the inquiry findings against him, say Mr Sofronoff called journalists from The Australian 55 times, particularly Janet Albrechtsen, and 10 to other journalists.

During the BOI’s public hearings, which ran between May and June 2023, Mr Sofronoff is said to have made 10 calls to The Australian, eight of which were to Ms Albrechtsen.

Barrister Dan O’Gorman told the court there were also texts and emails, and all these communications took place without Mr Drumgold being aware of them.

He said Mr Sofronoff was in “constant contact” with Ms Albrechtsen from about 22 February and throughout the remainder of the time he was performing his role, and she had received “confidential information” related to the inquiry.

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Ms Albrechtsen, who is more a commentator than a journalist, was particularly hostile to Ms Higgins’s case and to Mr Drumgold, who has alleged an apprehension of bias against him in Mr Sofronoff’s report.

Mr Sofronoff had even issued his own guide on how the media should deal with the BOI.

This came after years of controversy involving claims and counterclaims in duelling versions of events in different outlets before, during and after the case.

Whatever the merits of Mr Drumgold’s challenge or what emerged during the trial, the latest revelations continue a pattern of blurred lines between journalists, politicians, lawyers, and police.

In a high-profile sexual assault case laced with political implications, trial by media trashed Ms Higgins reputation, the presumption of innocence Mr Lehrmann should have been afforded and helped seal the fate of Mr Drumgold. It must be noted that Mr Lehrmann pleaded not guilty during his prosecution and no findings have been made against him.

This was not a case that went to trial and was duly reported on with fairness and detachment, but one in which the interests of both sides were prosecuted through the media.

It is fair to say that when The Australian decided early on to take a certain view, led by Albrechtsen, it was Ms Higgins and the prosecution that came off second best. Deservedly so, some may say.

However, that publication obtained and published privileged information that went beyond usual reporting in a criminal trial. In Mr Drumgold’s case, it and the ABC managed to obtain a copy of Mr Sofronoff’s BOI report before anybody else.

Some will argue this and the stream of breaking stories was simply good journalism and the result of being incredibly well-connected, but it reeks of US-style coverage where journalists are not observers but players in the legal process.

What Mr Sofronoff and Albrechtsen talked about is anybody’s guess, and there is no suggestion of anything untoward, but it isn’t a good look. There are good reasons for maintaining professional distance.

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It remains to be seen if the Lehrmann case is a watershed event in how the media approach reporting of the justice system but it was probably too much to expect in the era of 24/7 media, fractured as it is, for a story about sex, power and politics to be covered conventionally.

Without any sanction from the courts themselves, some media outlets will continue to feed the appetites of their audiences in any way they can.

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William Newby9:51 pm 06 Feb 24

Cautioned 18 times not to conduct their own research, I’m still shocked that they expect us to believe an unnamed juror was dumb enough to conduct their own research, print said research, bring it to court and leave it lying about for a security guard to stumble upon, read the document and report on this – throwing the entire trail.
Our legal system is a massive fake, if I was ever charged with anything in the ACT guilty or not, I’d be sweating bullets.
And then to top it all off a $2.3million settlement was issued in less than a working day with a million questions left unanswered.
Corruption, lies, political influence, procedures not followed, the ACT legal system is the worst there is.

Guys, guys, you have to help me here. One says it was a government conspiracy to prosecute while another says it was a government conspiracy to stop the trial.

A conspiracy is such an important fashion item these days that I can’t afford to go out with the wrong one.

So which is it?

And, um, why?

Whilst we do not know exactly what happened with regard to any of the players in this black comedy / tragedy, there are many questions to be answered, still.

It is possible that Sofronoff may be shown to have reached certain conclusions in the absence of sufficient evidence to support them. He may be found to have either conscious or unconscious bias based on beliefs obtained externally to the inquiry. He may also be shown to have breached confidentiality and ethics. We will just have to wait and see.

All the time there are very many lawyers making a mozza out of this complete balls-up. The lawyers never really lose, do they?

Totally agree – this whole sorry saga is the gift that keeps on giving … to the legal profession.

Drumgold allowed himself to be politically influenced. No other way would Lehrman have gone to trial. The ACT police wouldn’t even charge him until so directed by Drumgold. That the enquiry chair likes a chat with journalists…..so what!

You clearly believe the media rather than the inquiry findings, as it confirmed that Lehrmann should have gone to trial and that this decision by Drumgold and the police was correct. I suggest that you stick to the evidence rather than rumour.

And did you get that assessment that Drumgold allowed himself to be politically influenced from reading Janet Albrechtens opinion pieces?
Wow – if you think that it is no big deal for the Chair of a Board of Inquiry, the ACT equivalent of a royal commission, to chat with a clearly biased (on the matter related to his inquiry) media commentator during the conduct of that inquiry, then you have a very warped interpretation of due process.

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