How BuzzFeed killed natural justice

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BuzzFeed: Your #1 source for trash journalism (Image created by Dan Jensen)

Media outlet BuzzFeed breached ethics by releasing sensitive information about Emma Husar's complaints, writes Dr Jennifer Wilson.

IT BEGAN on 2 August, with this tweet from BuzzFeed reporter Alice Workman:

The “incoming yarn” turned out to be this letter from John Joseph Whelan, the lawyer appointed by the NSW Labor Party to investigate staff complaints against backbench MP Emma Husar. Whelan’s letter, which is addressed to Husar and lists accusations against her to which she is invited to respond, was leaked to BuzzFeed by an anonymous source.

All complainants’ names, some 20 in total, were redacted by BuzzFeed, however it would not be difficult to identify some of them from their descriptions of Ms Husar’s alleged offences.

One does not normally expect to read in the national media workplace complaints one has lodged in confidence, particularly while the process is ongoing. When questioned on Twitter about the complainants' knowledge of or agreement with their allegations being published, Workman did not respond.

Despite the fact that the investigation into the complaints is ongoing, BuzzFeed decided it was in the public interest to publish the list of Husar’s alleged offences. This decision was later justified by the outlet’s Josh Gnosis on ABC television’s The Drum as follows:

Internal complaints are initially generally dealt with internally, this is not some bizarre digression from normality by the ALP — although my colleague Noely Neate questions why these complaints were not referred to the Department of Finance who employ the staffers rather than have them directed to NSW Labor. This may have been at the request of the complainants, we do not know. Neate’s piece raises many questions that need to be answered and highlights the quite bizarre circumstances surrounding this action against Husar.

Labor hoped it wouldn’t get out? Also, a normal desire for any political party when there’s internal strife.

The report might get buried? Well, if BuzzFeed suspected this to be a possibility at the conclusion of the process, that would be a good time to publish the leak. Media do not generally sabotage workplace complaints processes because they harbour concerns about the outcome. And yet, here we are.  

Publishing at this point, before the process is concluded, denies natural justice to Ms Husar and to the complainants. Many of the allegations are seriously damaging and one, involving MP Jason Clare, has already been denied by that party. The sexual nature of some allegations has been singled out by BuzzFeed and subsequently other media, regardless of the fact that they have been in one instance denied and others are as yet unproven. There is little more damaging to a woman’s reputation than implies she is overly interested in sex. A woman may recover from much, but sexual slurs are in a class of their own. Despite having no proof and despite the complaints being as yet unresolved, BuzzFeed has used these scurrilous, leaked accusations to deliberately slur Ms Husar.

In setting this precedent, BuzzFeed has endangered the complaints processes in just about any workplace, but particularly in the parliamentary. All a disgruntled participant or external party has to do is attract sufficient media interest and it’s all over for the accused. A list of alleged offences can be published, as has happened with Husar, removing any hope of natural justice.

It’s already established that the Australian parliamentary workplace has woefully inadequate processes for addressing sexual harassment complaints. Now we know that something this woeful can be even further reduced — you lodge a complaint, a friend or enemy leaks the substance of your complaint to a rabid media who decide it’s in the public interest to report it, even though the investigative process is ongoing and, suddenly, even if your name is redacted, people can work out who you are and what you allege has happened to you. The accused is outed. The process both for the complainant and the accused is irrevocably tainted, and it becomes a trial by media.

If you are very unlucky, the sewer rats will make memes – as they have with Husar – and your confidential complaint and your sexuality will be all over social media as well. 

None of this is encouraging to people who want to lodge complaints.

If the media can and does from now on publish leaked details of internal complaints processes before they are concluded, there is no longer any hope of natural justice for anyone involved. Emma Husar, like any accused, is entitled to natural justice. By publishing the leaked accusations, BuzzFeed has denied her that and made it possible for any other accused person to suffer the same fate. The precedent is set.

Exactly what public interest is served by denying the possibility of natural justice to both the accused and the complainants?

What Workman and BuzzFeed have done is bad for everyone. There can no longer be any guarantee of confidentiality in any internal complaints. Somebody with a motive leaks to the media, they publish and goodbye due process.

Denial of natural justice is never in the public interest.

In this interview with Fran Kelly on RN Breakfast this morning, Workman oozes righteous indignation as she describes how Husar has refused to speak to her, even when offered a “right of reply”. Workman has no standing in this matter. She has no authority to offer Husar the “right of reply”. She has subverted a process about which she is apparently entirely ignorant. No one ought to speak to the media while this process is in play, yet Workman attempts to frame Husar’s refusal as an indicator of guilt and non-cooperation.

Workplace complaints processes are frequently flawed. Nevertheless, I’ll take them any day over trial by media. This is an alarming new landscape we’ve entered since yesterday — one in which you can no longer feel certain that your complaint will remain confidential or certain that you won’t wake up one morning and find it all over the national media. If you’re accused, you can no longer expect your workplace to guarantee you the natural justice you deserve, not because investigators don’t want to, but because the media can disrupt the progression of the process.

The media have intruded into a space where they do not belong, to the detriment of everyone except reporters and their employers.

Natural justice is a human right. BuzzFeed just took it away from you.

You can follow Dr Jennifer Wilson on her blog No Place for Sheep or on Twitter @NoPlaceForSheep.

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