Annabel Crabb texts bolster call for inquiry into ABC’s conduct on Christian Porter

Chris Merritt                 29 October 2021

Published in the Australian Newspaper

On March 7, the ABC’s Annabel Crabb appeared on the Insiders program as part of a panel discussion on the unprovable rape accusation that had been made against former attorney-general Christian Porter.

Presenter David Speers opened the segment responsibly by inviting “a quick disclosure”. He pointed out Crabb had known Porter’s accuser – a mentally ill woman who tragically killed herself in 2020 after telling friends she had been raped by a teenage Porter 33 years ago.

Crabb estimated that she had not spoken to the woman in 20 years and then made a statement whose meaning is destined to be picked over by those who are keen to get to the bottom of the ABC’s pursuit of Porter.

“I must say I’ve not had any relevant confidences or … disclosures made to me,” Crabb said.

In the light of subsequent events, that was quite a statement. On Wednesday, some of Crabb’s text messages were made public by the Federal Court when it rejected, in part, an attempt by Adelaide woman Jo Dyer to have those messages suppressed.

They show Crabb’s involvement in this affair did not finish 20 years ago when she last saw the dead woman, but continued last year when she had a “chat” in July with Dyer – a friend and failed candidate for Labor preselection.

Dyer told the Federal Court in May she wanted the rape allegation to prevent Porter becoming prime minister. From her perspective, the discussion with Crabb last July was fruitful.

The text messages show that Crabb subsequently felt “a boiling sense of rage and grief” and considered Porter to be “amazingly arrogant to think you can mistreat people and get away with it forever”.

Crabb then made her home available so Louise Milligan could interview Dyer for Four Corners, informed Dyer about Milligan’s progress (“spoke to L today she is making good progress”), provided feedback to Dyer after the interview (“I just had a message from her saying ‘Jo was amazing’ ”) and praised Dyer for seeking “justice” for the dead woman. She also raised the issue with Communications Minister Paul Fletcher and reported back to Dyer.

Crabb is a prominent ABC presenter. Yet her text messages leave the clear impression she was acting as an intermediary for a woman who made no secret of her antipathy towards Porter.

Dyer texted Crabb in July about what she said was Porter’s “entitled arseholedom”.

There are two issues here. The first goes back to that Insiders program in March. Speers did exactly the right thing by seeking a disclosure. But Crabb did herself no favours by remaining silent about her involvement with Dyer.

When it came to light this week, Crabb doubled down. She told The Australian she stood by what she told Speers back in March. But is that credible?

Now the text messages are public, people can make their own assessments.

Dyer had been forced to provide the text messages during litigation that prevented barrister Sue Chrysanthou SC from running Porter’s now settled defamation case against the ABC and Milligan.

Dyer’s victory was a setback for Porter. But it has also resulted in the disclosure of information that has strengthened the case for an independent inquiry into the national broadcaster’s conduct during this affair.

Before settling his defamation action over the rape allegation, Porter’s statement of claim had accused the ABC and Milligan of malice.

On June 11, Justice Tom Thawley issued a heavily redacted judgment in which he indicated he had examined secret evidence from Dyer that “is relevant both to whether the ABC’s and Ms Milligan’s conduct was reasonable and whether it could be said that it was actuated by malice”.

In May, Dyer gave evidence that she had deleted her exchanges with Milligan from the encrypted messaging service WhatsApp. Milligan had recommended this, Dyer said.

What has come to light is by no means the full story. More text messages between Crabb and Dyer remain suppressed and Porter is considering lodging an appeal in order to have all them made public.

Crabb says she is surprised to find her text messages have been disclosed by the Federal Court “given my deep personal irrelevance to any of the issues raised in the matter of Dyer v Chrysanthou”.

But even if her text messages are irrelevant to the Chrysanthou litigation, they shine a bright light on how the ABC operates. And if her text messages are so mundane, why did Dyer try to keep them suppressed?

Thanks to the Federal Court the community now has a better understanding of what the ABC considers to be full disclosure. It also knows that one of the organisation’s high-profile staff was an intermediary for a woman who wanted to truncate Porter’s career.

So what does the ABC plan to do about this? Is it satisfied the Insiders audience was fully informed before Crabb was allowed to provide her analysis of the accusations against Porter? Was anyone in ABC management even aware of what was happening?

This affair is far from over. The Federal Court gave notice on Thursday that it planned to make more documents from the Chrysanthou litigation available. That’s good, but not sufficient.

The ABC has conceded that its coverage of this affair led some people to mistakenly believe Milligan’s article about the dead woman’s accusation was an accusation of criminal guilt against Porter. It has also conceded this cannot be proven.

How long must the community wait before the conduct of the ABC in this affair faces an independent inquiry?