"This Is My Limit": Two Aussie Journalists Forego Commission Coverage

Neither Suzanne Smith nor Joanne McCarthy will be covering the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse. When her ABC editors came to Suzanne and suggested she do so, she told them politely but bluntly: No. At the Newcastle Herald, where Joanne McCarthy is a senior reporter, they knew to not even ask.

McCarthy and Smith are among the best-qualified reporters in Australia to cover child sexual abuse. McCarthy won the 2012 Graham Perkin Australian Journalist of the Year award for her campaigning journalism, uncovering the truth about sex abuse in the Catholic Church. Her seven years of work, including as part of the Herald’s Shine The Light campaign, was instrumental in the Federal Government’s decision to order a Royal Commission and a separate New South Wales special commission of inquiry into police handling of abuse by clergy in the Hunter Valley.

Suzanne Smith is a three time winner of the Walkley Award, Australia’s most prestigious prize for journalism, one in 2005, for coverage of sexual abuse in indigenous communities in the Northern Territory. She also covered the Hunter inquiry in Newcastle. And it took a toll.

“About six weeks into the Newcastle inquiry, doing it every day and filing nightly reports for television, I started to get really angry, getting into fights with people. I started to add a few extra glasses of wine,” she says. “I realised this is my limit, I’ve got to get off.”

Smith had the advantage of a long association with the Dart Centre Asia Pacific and the ABC’s innovative peer-support program. “But you have to know your limits,” she says. “I was asked to cover the Commission and I said no and I feel really happy about it.”

McCarthy and Smith headed a panel at the Dart Centre forum in Sydney on 30 August for media professionals preparing to cover the inquiry.

In 2012, McCarthy wrote an opinion piece in the Herald in which she said child sexual abuse “is the genesis of decades of suffering, the silent wrecking ball in our community behind too many broken families, too many lost and shattered lives and too much pain." Journalists at the Commission have to be aware of that and of the personal and emotional challenges and responsibilities of reporting on that pain, she says.

“I think the essential point here is that this is about power. And what does the media represent? Victims of child sexual abuse, particularly institutional abuse, and their families, it’s power that has been taken away from them. As the media you can do your bit to redress that.”

“Silence is the issue for the victims,” she told the forum. “We have a really particular role as journalists… But by definition, talking with people in a lot of these cases, victims and families, often you’re not disclosing for them, you’re having to care for them as well. Obviously, then, boundaries move and they become very elastic.”

Later she says one of the first things journalists need to do on such assignments is “to know yourself… You need to know what your weaknesses are, and your strengths.  When you’re interviewing child sexual assault victims, you want to be responsible, you want to fix their lives.  You really have to be aware of that so you can set your boundaries, especially doing this over the long haul.”

Self-care is vital, adds Smith: “Anyone going into this Commission should have a checklist of what the symptoms are when you’re psychologically distressed. They should contact Dart obviously; they should contact other journalists who have been in traumatic situations and get their advice. 

“You need to eat well and try to be fit and not drink every night. You need to have a team of people behind you who you can regularly call and check in with. And you should be absolutely happy to say no to the editor if you feel you are at the limit.”

McCarthy says the revelations of what happened to abused children can be shocking and toxic for media professionals: “I took the dog for walks a lot, ran, got off into the bush by myself,” she says. “Covering child sexual abuse can erode your sense of joy in the world, it’s like ‘humanity sucks,' so you go off into the bush for a while.”