A tissue of lies: Paul Sheehan and “Louise”
The most perfunctory of checks would have shown Paul Sheehan’s allegations were almost certainly untrue. But he couldn’t help himself.
“When she gave me verifiable facts, they were verified,” wrote Paul Sheehan, in the article that was teased on the front page of the Sydney Morning Herald on Monday morning.
His column, called “The story of Louise: we’ll never know the scale of the rape epidemic in Sydney”, now carries this correction online: “Many details originally contained in this story were unable to be corroborated to Fairfax Media’s satisfaction. These details, including untested aspersions against an ethnic group and untested allegations of inaction against the NSW Police, have been removed from this story.”
I don’t remember ever seeing a correction quite like this one. Isn’t that corroboration supposed to happen before publication? And what are the “details”, anyway? According to Sheehan, “Louise” was the victim of a horrific crime in 2002. A nurse from St Vincent’s Hospital, she fell asleep in her car after a shift, still wearing her uniform. She was then attacked by a group of six Arab-speaking men, who broke her bones in 79 places, raped her (orally, vaginally and anally), cut her throat, urinated in her mouth, knocked her teeth out and left her for dead. Finally, a group of homeless men (one of whom described the attackers as “Middle Eastern Raping Cunts” at a later date) somehow got her help.
Police then failed to interview “Louise” in hospital, or collect any evidence. Even though she was conscious, they did no subsequent investigation into the gang rape and attempted murder. The hospital did nothing either. She was admitted as a “Jane Doe” (terminology not used in Australian hospitals) and apparently never identified during her stay. On release, she was sent to a women’s shelter and then became homeless. Months later, she subsequently tried to report the assault at a Sydney police station, and was turned away by a duty officer with a bad attitude.
This story, as presented, would be one of the most extreme failures of public services ever seen in Australia. The New South Wales health service failing to identify one of its own traumatised employees in a major hospital? Police not investigating a gang rape and attempted murder? These things seemed scarcely believable to anyone familiar with protocols around violence. Still, Sheehan stressed the credibility of “Louise”. “She says she has a degree in psychology,” he wrote.
Many people read this story with a growing sense of incredulity. For a select few, that incredulity was especially deep. They had heard this story before. Even those who hadn’t known “Louise” for long had already heard many variations of it, and it seemed to become more distorted with each telling.
“Louise” even made a variant of these claims at a Sydney Reclaim Australia rally in April last year. The event was filmed. She was a last-minute inclusion in the speaking order. Her speech recounted the attack, this time claiming she was in hospital for four and a half months. She also described carloads of Muslim men setting homeless people on fire, and “black brothels”, where stolen children are prostituted. Attendees at the rally were initially sympathetic and befriended her, but then found her claims increasingly difficult to believe.
She would change details, or add a kidnapping. Sometimes the kidnapping happened in 2005, sometimes in 2007. During this ordeal, “Louise” said she was held for four days in a room with children, that she escaped but was unable to rescue them. Police were not informed of this incident either. “Louise” also told her new friends about her degree in psychology. She mentioned degrees in nursing, accountancy and criminology as well. When confronted, she was unable to account for discrepancies in her stories. Reclaim Australia members regret putting her on stage. “I wouldn’t give her a microphone in a karaoke booth,” one says now.
The “googling” Paul Sheehan claims to have carried out would have shown that “Louise” had previously told her kidnapping story to another journalist from the Herald Sun, in 2014. It would have uncovered her Facebook page, which details altercations with Muslim men that occur with unusual frequency. It would have shown that she operates a multitude of different online personas, several of which have repeatedly tried to engage the attention of the media. It would have shown that she also claims to be suffering from leukaemia.
I was not surprised, then, when one of the media staff at St Vincent’s hospital told me he had never heard of an attack like this on any of their nurses, and found it very difficult to accept that it could occur as described with no media attention or police follow-up.
I was not surprised by the conversation that I had with “Louise”, though I was intrigued. She had definitely spoken to Paul Sheehan, except they weren’t speaking any more. “I think that Paul Sheehan wrote that story of Louise with a little bit of self-service,” she told me. “He’s writing a book. And what better way than to try and advertise it with a story like this. Anyway, I’m angry with him now.” She is also writing a book. She says she has witnessed murders.
I was not surprised that when I pressed “Louise” for any detail that could verify her story, she ended the conversation. So far, my lines of enquiry with the police and Sydney hospitals have not produced any corroboration for any part of her story. I would like to know, for example, what happened to the car left abandoned next to a bloodstained crime-scene outside St Mary’s cathedral.
But I am surprised that a story like this got anywhere near the front page of a newspaper like the Sydney Morning Herald. Because when I read that piece, I suspected it should never have been published, and I wasn’t alone. And after 15 minutes of investigation, I was sure it should never have been published. And after an afternoon of research, its publication now seems unbelievably negligent. Negligent to Louise, to the hospitals named, to the police. Negligent to rape victims. And above all, negligent to every Muslim subjected to this inflammatory canard and its consequences.
It’s no secret that regular columnists get scant editorial attention. But they are examined much more carefully when their columns are moved to page one. And it was exactly the sensationalist and – let’s be clear – racist nature of its content that had it bumped to the front of the paper. Senior eyes, considered eyes, made that decision. They made it relying on the journalistic integrity of an agenda-soaked writer who believes in magical water, and the word of a woman who would have been cast into extreme doubt by just a Google search or a single phone call.
“In the story recounted to me by Louise,” wrote Sheehan amid the litter of excuses in the mea culpa he published last night, “she made insulting references to rapes committed by Middle Eastern men. I had wrongly amplified this insult by including her words in the column.”
Again, that’s not true. Because the whole piece was an insult. It was a bald accusation that dozens of Muslim men were going on rape sprees without detection, and that the police were ignoring it. It was an accusation made on the flimsiest proof, at the maximum volume. By the time this crawling pseudo-correction was made, the column had already been shared 11,000 times. It’s all too little, and much, much too late.