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Sex, lies and rock ‘n’ roll

Think very carefully before agreeing to be a witness in a child abuse court case

23 August 2014

9:00 AM

23 August 2014

9:00 AM

The Brevet Sergeant from the Sex Crimes Unit who came to my office late in 2010 hastened to assure me that there were no allegations against me. He simply wanted my assistance to identify a person under investigation for the sexual abuse of a minor in the early 1980s.

In matters like this, one instinctively wants to help, so I did. In allowing myself to be interviewed and by making a formal statement, I became ensnared in what was a distinctly unpleasant experience.

In April 2012 the matter came before the Adelaide District Court. It involved two men, one of whom had worked for my band, Redgum, as a driver and a lighting operator for a short period of time in 1981 – around the time of the alleged abuse.

In her opening address, I was named by the prosecutor as an incidental witness for the prosecution. This was a matter of great excitement for some media outlets in Adelaide, notably the Adelaide Advertiser, Channel 7 and ABC Radio.

These outlets considered it necessary for their coverage of the story – and in the public interest, apparently – to associate my name and Redgum’s name with the case. From that point on, almost every time the case resurfaced in the media, Redgum and I were mentioned. Channel 7, in particular, found it necessary to run vision of me performing with Redgum over its voice-over. Frankly, while I expected this sort of behaviour on the part of some commercial media outlets, I expected better of the ABC. Not any more, however.

Redgum was a controversial band only in that we addressed injustices and social and political issues from a left perspective. You certainly wouldn’t die wondering what we thought. Like a number of other progressive bands at the time, we performed and raised money for a wide range of causes including, but not limited to, Australia’s Vietnam veterans and environmental issues.

However, this quite gratuitous association with the activities of an alleged paedophile, however tenuous and incidental, only served to diminish this reputation – and indeed my own. For the entire time this case was the subject of media attention I continued to receive calls from friends and acquaintances asking if I or one of the other band members had been charged.

As a parent myself, I consider that I behaved responsibly in agreeing to assist the police. Had it been my child, I would have wanted a person in my position to step up. However, as I correctly predicted that media outlets would seize the opportunity to associate my name and Redgum’s with this unedifying matter, I did so reluctantly.

Inevitably, and despite misgivings expressed to both the Brevet Sergeant and the prosecutor, I was subpoenaed to appear as a witness for the prosecution. Given I was to do no more than confirm the identity of one of the accused, I was advised by friends in the legal profession that there was absolutely no need for the prosecutor to call me as a witness, let alone name me in her opening remarks. Yet she did.

Furthermore, prior to the trial (and with the approval of the prosecutor), I was interviewed by the accused’s lawyer. He advised me that my evidence was uncontroversial, that he would accept my statement as tendered, that there was no need for me to appear and that he would advise the prosecutor of this. I have no reason to believe that he did not do this.

Nevertheless, the prosecutor pressed ahead with my appearance, despite having had all this reiterated to her by my own legal adviser. Given all this, it’s hard not to conclude that the prosecutor was simply playing for media attention at my expense.

The unpleasant experience of my court appearance was exacerbated by a photographer from the Adelaide Advertiser lurking outside the District Court who scampered around me with his whirring motor-driven camera.

A letter from me addressed to the editor of the Adelaide Advertiser, Mr. Melvin Mansell, did not elicit a response. My legal adviser wrote to a number of the media outlets concerned. Channel 7 was concerned enough to have its lawyers draft a terse, intimidatory reply but I didn’t have the inclination to take the matter further.

As an ABC recording artist, I wrote to the ABC myself in the knowledge that its editorial guidelines include the following stricture :

“Content that is likely to cause harm or offence must be justified by the editorial context.”

Harm? I invite the reader to imagine how distressing it was for myself and my family to receive phone calls tentatively enquiring whether I, or someone from Redgum, had been charged with the sexual abuse of a minor. And they were the ones who had the guts to ask directly.

To add insult to injury, the response from Mr Mark Maley from the ABC’s Audience and Consumer Affairs Department included this sentence:

“It is unfortunate if it is true that your reputation has been damaged by your association with this case.”

“…if it is true….” As if I would make that up. In any case I still fail to see how, in this case, identifying Redgum and me was justified by the editorial context.

I also complained, in writing, to the Director of Public Prosecutions. His response was a fatuous defence of his prosecutor and marked by what I considered to be arrogance and offhandedness, without a shred of understanding or empathy.

In the light of what happened, I’m ashamed to say that I would think very, very carefully before agreeing to assist the police in a matter like this again.

In handing down its findings and its recommendations, the Royal Commission into the Institutional Responses to Child Sex Abuse might consider addressing these issues with a view to protecting well-intentioned witnesses from the attention and the inevitable damage that flows from salacious media reporting.

And prosecutors with an eye to their own media profiles.

John Schumann was the lead singer-songwriter in the socio-political folk-rock band, Redgum. He runs his own strategic communications consultancy in SA and has a new band, the Vagabond Crew.

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