The fight for truth, fairness and the restoration of Matthew Johns

15 May 2009 | 12:00 - By Jesse Fink

Amid recent arguments about consent and morality, has Australia become a vigilante state?


So now come the revelations that "Clare", the eye of the storm in the Four Corners program "The Code of Silence", allegedly "bragged" to her workmates about having sex with Cronulla Sharks players, including Matthew Johns, the day after that infamous incident in the Racecourse Hotel in Christchurch in 2002.

Tania Boyd, a cash controller at the hotel, last night told Channel Nine: "She was absolutely excited about the fact: she was bragging about it to the staff and quite willing, openly saying how she had sex with several players. We were quite disgusted about it… there was no trauma whatsoever.

"I'm disgusted that a woman can all of a sudden change her story from having a great time to then turning it into a terrible crime.

"We all just thought it was hilarious until five days later the police came to work and were horrified she had now changed her story to say she was now a victim of crime."

In a separate interview with the Sydney Morning Herald, she went further, claiming Clare boasted, "I was with the boys from Cronulla Sharks last night, I don't even know how many" and that she "told police I thought it was all made up, and I believe many of the other staff told them the same thing."

If Boyd's account is correct, and which seems to square up with Johns's own version of what happened that night, I'm disgusted too.

How can such an important piece of information fail to be included in the Four Corners story?

If I was disgusted at the treatment of Johns, and I have been apoplectic, I'm now even more disgusted at what our country has become.

What the Matthew Johns story has proved this week is that there are two Australias: one that values fairness, due process and justice; another that runs by the freewheeling rules of a vigilante state.

I sincerely hope the guttersnipes that were so quick to condemn Matthew Johns – in particular Sam de Brito, Miranda Devine, and Jill Singer – feel a little sheepish this morning. They bloody well should. All three, and many others, rushed to the judgement of Johns with the restraint of a pack of hyenas before all the facts of the story were on the table.

I'm sorry, Richard Ackland, but Sarah Ferguson's story was not an "absolute cracker", it was shameful. A nadir for Australian journalism. And it stands to be another Phuong Ngo disaster for the ABC’s flagship current-affairs program.

"Four Corners managed to achieve something rare in journalism – a change of attitudes, a rejection of complacent acceptance of rottenness," Ackland wrote in today's SMH.

"You'll notice the legal eggshells over which Four Corners gingerly tiptoed on Monday night. I don't think [Ferguson] directly asked the New Zealand woman identified as 'Clare' whether she consented to one, two or five sexual encounters.

"If she had answered 'no', then the recognised rugby league players may well have been able to bring defamation proceedings against the ABC because an imputation of sexual assault had been raised.

"As in the criminal jurisdiction, such a civil case would have been heavily stacked in their favour because on a factual basis it is her word against the insistent chorus of male voices that the whole thing was consensual. One against eight."

The modus operandi of Four Corners, then, seems to be this: if we can't nail anyone for sexual assault for lack of evidence and corroboration, and we can't say what one or more of them did was sexual assault because we'll get our arses sued, we'll just put it on TV and smear the lot of them anyway.

Let's turn it around and make a story that is fundamentally an issue of consent suddenly one about the "degradation of women", misogyny and the ethicality of group sex (an issue I'm not even going to touch on here, for want of space). If Johns and his mates get cleaned up in the process, so be it!

Disgusting. That's a real "complacent acceptance of rottenness", Mr Ackland.

But there was a far worse example of intellectual vigilantism.

Pru Goward, the shadow federal community services minister and former sex discrimination commissioner, appeared on Nine's Today Show and declared the unnamed men in the room of the Racecourse Hotel that night were variously "facing possible jail sentences", "we are now talking about criminal charges", "we are talking now about a crime" and "we are that close to seeing charges of rape".

Excuse me? On what evidence?

Who does Goward think she is telling the New Zealand authorities how to do their business? What jurisdictive power does she have across the ditch? The police in Christchurch have closed their case, stating categorically "that no evidence was established that would support criminal charges being laid against any person. The female complainant was fully advised at the time of the outcome of the inquiry and accepted this."

Perhaps try commenting on things you know about next time, Miss Goward.

By far the most heartening media coverage I saw all week was last night on the NRL Footy Show on Nine.

It was touching to see Paul "Fatty" Vautin, or "Paddy", as Broncos chief executive Bruno Cullen mistakenly called him, read out a prepared statement at the beginning of the program explaining his infamous "pat" on Johns's back the week before.

"Both Matt and I were not aware of the intensity of the story to come on the following Monday night," he said.

"He went on air to apologise to his wife, for the second time in seven years, mind you, and I noticed as he was sitting here, how hard he was doing it. At the end, and merely as a friend, I gave Matt a 'well said' and a pat on the back, as I think any Australian mate would do. It was nothing more and nothing less."

It was the right thing to do, Mr Vautin, and you should never have felt the need to explain yourself. I would have done the same thing and I haven't met, heard from or spoken to a man or woman this week who would do any differently.

Then there was the sight of a tearful Phil Gould, the eminence grise of rugby league and a good friend of Johns, who gave viewers an insight into how his mate had been effectively ambushed by Four Corners before "The Code of Silence" went to air.

"From the time Matt got the call from [Ferguson], she never intimated to him at any time what was coming his way, what the girl had said or how explosive she was going to be about it. Matt Johns, quite honestly, gave her all the details that he knew about the incident as he had given the police seven years ago.

"The program was aired… by Wednesday, I was really worried about [Johns]. I got some calls from him that gave me great concern for him. I urged him to come home. When he arrived [at Channel Nine studios] yesterday with his wife, I've never seen two more shattered people.

"They were struggling with the rage. They hadn't seen the report… and in their minds, the true facts hadn't come out. [Ferguson] hadn't reported the incident as it was, and that Matt somehow had been purported as the instigator of a very unsavoury act. They wanted the facts out there."

And while Four Corners and its reporter, Ferguson, were happy to put together their hatchet job on Johns and give him only a few days' warning of what was about to come – and not even the full details of that report, if we are to believe Gould – she did not even do The Footy Show the courtesy of appearing on the program after being expressly invited to field questions about the veracity of her story.

Again, disgusting.

A friend of mine, a 28-year-old woman called Cat who has been, like many of my friends and colleagues from around the world, penning virtual essays on the Johns story on my Facebook page, put it this way to me this week: "["Clare"] made a mistake, as did [Johns]. They all did. They have all already paid for it... in their own way. But is it Johns's responsibility to safeguard her as an innocent teen? Or is it realistic to expect people to live within the legal and moral boundaries that we all, as a collective whole, see fit and agree on?

"What are those rules? The law? No law was broken. So what are we talking about... a different level of deceit? He should have known better.

"But the truth is they all f***** up. They made a mistake. It wasn't Johns being a predator or her being a victim. We all make mistakes at some point and we all have to take responsibility for those mistakes eventually. And sometimes that really, really hurts. Sometimes those mistakes lead to post-traumatic stress disorder, sometimes to divorce, sometimes just to a headache... but responsibility must be taken for the choices we make, regrets or not."

Amid the maelstrom of bluster, condemnation, innuendo, rumour and misinformation, it was the most sensible thing I'd heard all week.

The Matthew Johns scandal should not leave rugby league in crisis. It should be leaving Four Corners in crisis.

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17 Sep 2014 8:34 AEST


From: great


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11 May 2011 18:15 AEST

Noelle Teachey

From: Noelle Teachey

not a big drinker and not prone to gather

not a big drinker and not prone to gather in crowds, even when the big bad wolf, the bogeyman, or the wicked witch is dead. I hope they will have your insight as they mature to examine themselves and their times as you have, so artfully, here.

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28 May 2009 22:24 AEST


From: Indooroopilly

Tania Boyd's reliability vs 'Clare'

Louise, what makes 'Clare's' accusations any more reliable than Tania Boyd's statements? At least she was willing to reveal her identity, making it possible to check into her background. You don't even know who 'Clare' is, and yet you're willing to take her word for it.

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27 May 2009 12:41 AEST


From: Woollahra

Matthew Johns

Watch "The Chasers" tonight, re Matthew Johns

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22 May 2009 11:22 AEST


From: Brunswick

Ethical men must fight for change

This is a great article, perhaps because it is written by someone with extensive experience in matters of sexual violence and not a blokey sports journalist who simply accepts claims of bragging and ascribes to them a meaning that he has no real capacity to judge.

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21 May 2009 19:49 AEST


From: Dianella, Perth, W.A.

Responsibility exists..

He cannot be reinstated in leadership/promotion roles for the game as the little men(i.e. kids) around the country will receive conflicting messages as to what is acceptable in this country regarding the way men should treat women. I am 33 and would be totally aghast at any entity prepared to say that this is acceptable behaviour and I do question Channel 9's morality as it has been implicated that they knew about this a long time ago. These blokes aren't boys as too many try to tell us!

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20 May 2009 19:13 AEST


From: woollahra

Matthew Johns

I’ve been raped twice, I’ve had a man with a knife get into my bedroom at 1am, I thought on my feet and talked him out of the house somehow. I had an abortion at only 19. None of these events overly traumatized me, I was over each of them in about one (horrible) week – or so I thought.. as the years passed these experiences came back to haunt me. The humilation, the shame, the fear in the night if there was a squeak on the stairs, I'm sad every January as this was the month I had the abortion. As a rather young man you can’t possibly know about this, I believe it’s starting to happen to Clare. At 19 she couldn’t have possibly known what she was doing, nor what the long term ramifications of her experience would be. As for Johns, “he’ll be back, possibly as a role model” (SMH Sat last) "sportsmen are quickly forgiven". Four Corners was irresponsible and unfair to Johns. Further, group sex is fine, if you can handle it.

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18 May 2009 19:00 AEST

Bill Reilly

From: Paddington QLD

The Lynch Mob and the lack of self respect errrm maybe that should be self responsibilty

People married single engaged in our society have group sex - do not tag them "football players", "swingers", "groupies" or whatever slant you wanto place on it.. it happens. Some Men and WOMEN do take part in it at stages in their lives. I think the reporting of the incident by Four Corners is disgusting in direct relation to this specific incident. Do not make Matthew Johns the scapegoat, get off your soapbox and show some responsibilty when trying to push for changes in attitudes towards women in our society. If you cant do this, then your behaviour is just as reckless as the next person..

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18 May 2009 11:45 AEST


From: Briz

Media Pack Irony

Finkster, well said. The bigger story emerging here, is the way the media hunt in packs. I note none have yet noted the IRONY of a pack of self-appointed moralists, with national platforms at their disposal, ganging up on one individual! (Did they get Johns' consent to continue to wipe thier feet on him?). Unfortunately I am not surprised as what passes for journalism in this country is a poor imitation, driven more by maintaining sales than truth or perspective. As has been said many times before Johns did nothing illegal, and in our pluralistic society what is "immoral" is illegal. They ARE one and the same thing. (Otherwise whose morals do we go by?) But, despite the recent evidence supporting Johns' account of events this has not stopped the media feeding frenzy. Why let facts stand in the way of a good story?!? Four Corners has a reputation of quality journalism. Unfortunately, and quite clearly, this story did not apply the level of rigour normally associated with the program.

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18 May 2009 9:31 AEST


From: Toorak

Clare is no slag

She was no willing participant and it's obvious her comments to Tania after the fact were the attempts of a 19 year girl in shock trying to work out what happened to her and process the trauma. Who would even expect that could happen? The decent men of sport who play for the game should speak out in defense of Clare. For gods sake, be men.

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About this Blog

The Finktank is more of what you've come to expect from Jesse Fink, The World Game's enfant terrible, but with a bent on the big issues in sport. No sport, no personality, no subject, is off limits. 

Jesse Fink Jesse Fink is one of Australia's most popular football writers and sports columnists. He is the author of the book 15 Days in June: How Australia Became a Football Nation (Hardie Grant, $29.95) and writes twice a week as "Half-Time Orange" for The World Game and weekly for ESPN Star Sports in Singapore. He lives in Sydney.