SMH columnist Paul Sheehan
When I read Sydney Morning Herald columnist Paul Sheehan's story about "Louise" on Monday, the woman who he claimed had been gang-raped and violated, I believed it. I really believed it.
Actually, I more than believed it. I cried all the way through it. He has always been a really powerful writer, and the story gave me goosebumps. I read the comments about the alleged perpetrators in context and I imagined that was what really happened. I can't stand the way Sheehan writes about the Muslim community, but I gave him the benefit of the doubt because this was meant to be reporting. I assumed he had behaved like a reporter. I'm also imagining this is what the editors of the Sydney Morning Herald thought too. Paul Sheehan, senior journalist. He knows what he's talking about.
And – sucked in me – Sheehan used the word verified.
Writer Shakira Hussein Photo: Simon Schluter
Here's where he convinced me in the original story:
"As for her credibility, I interviewed her for several hours. She has 11 exercise books filled with diaries. She has extensive medical records. She was consistent in her answers. When she gave me verifiable facts, they were verified. Her years working as a nurse in the inner city gave her extensive contact with prostitutes and the homeless. She has a degree in psychology."
Now it turns out, as Sheehan explained in a subsequent column published on Wednesday, that the story was mostly based on an invention. (Had he done actual research work on the claims, he would have quite easily found videos of "Louise" at Reclaim Australia rallies)
Now Sheehan apologised for the story. Kind of.
First, he explained he gave "Louise" the benefit of the doubt but now he knew that he was "wrong to do so".
Oh those women, always with the stories.
"Second, I had not considered the possibility that her story had been carefully constructed on a foundation of embellishments, false memories and fabrications."
Third, he owed the NSW Police force an apology.
To me, however, he mostly owes readers an apology. Not just for this story but for all the others where he has demeaned and degraded members of the Muslim community. I did a quick check of Sheehan's work over the last year. More than 30 mentions of Islam or Muslims in 30 different stories and there is nearly always a faint air of menace.
Yes, he owes readers an apology.
But he also owes all those women who never reported their rapes an apology, too.
Because women really do have trouble reporting their rapes. They are afraid and ashamed and you have made it harder for them to come out.
As Lisa Pryor, former lawyer and Sydney Morning Herald reporter, now a doctor, says: "It is simultaneously true that rape is common, underreported and under punished, and that a small number of individuals have emotional/mental/personality problems which make them lie about all kinds of things, including things like this."
Big lies all over.
Now there is another – vital -- group of people to whom he must also apologise. They don't read Sheehan any more because they are too hurt and too damaged by his endless attack on them. They are the members of the Muslim community of Australia. (I'm pleased and relieved to recognise that it's unlikely anyone overseas would ever read his anti-Muslim sentiment).
Shakira Hussein says it's noteworthy that Sheehan has apologised to the police but not to her community and not to survivors of sexual assault.
Yes, he has only apologised to those with authority.
But the rest of us have moral authority in this instance and he has none. I doubt I will ever read another piece by Paul Sheehan with any belief. It will always be with bitter cynicism. More fool me. I love journalism so much and Sheehan betrayed that, betrayed the readers, all of us, whether Muslim, Catholic, Jewish, atheist, all of us.
For the last few years, Mariam Veiszadeh has been campaigning against Islamophobia. She does a brilliant job but she's overwhelmed.
"This is not something the Australian Muslim community can battle alone."
And Hussein reminds us that this is the week we farewelled the author of To Kill A Mockingbird.
"The week that we farewell Harper Lee and there is still nothing more incendiary that the story of a white woman being raped by a non-white man."
Paul, a word to you now.
If only you could sit in a room with Mariam and Shakira and Sara Saleh and all the other Muslim women and men who are devastated every time you write about Muslims.
If you were really sorry, you'd apologise to them, and to us.
And give your time to a group of Australians who need support and love. Prove how sorry you are. Help reclaim Australia from racists and bigots.
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