September 2020


Chelmsford revisited

By Lane Sainty
Images of members of the Citizens Commission on Human Rights at the Chelmsford royal commission, 1990

Members of the Citizens Commission on Human Rights at the Chelmsford royal commission, 1990. © Robert Pearce / The Sydney Morning Herald

Thirty years on from the excoriating royal commission, two practitioners of deep sleep therapy seek redemption in a defamation case that again blames Scientologists for their downfall

On a recent winter’s afternoon, not for the first time, Dr John Gill blamed Scientologists for his personal and professional demise. He had taken the oath just minutes earlier, the glare of the computer screen reflecting off his glasses as he swore, by Almighty God and into the Microsoft Teams videoconferencing app, that he would tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth about the tragic and peculiar events of 50 years ago.

During the 1960s and ’70s, certain patients at Chelmsford Private Hospital, in Sydney’s north-west, were administered “deep sleep therapy”. They were knocked out by barbiturates for up to two weeks, fed through a nose tube and left incontinent in their beds, and given electroconvulsive therapy (ECT), in a bid to cure their maladies of depression, anxiety, schizophrenia, addiction. The six-bed ward where they lay comatose was later nicknamed the “zombie room” by the press. Inside, nurses testified, the silence was periodically broken by a sedated patient groaning or lashing out at some unknowable hallucination. 

Today, you will find deep sleep therapy listed under “Prohibited Treatments” in the New South Wales Mental Health Act. “I can’t even understand the theory behind it,” eminent psychiatrist and former Australian of the Year Patrick McGorry said recently.

A royal commission found in 1990 that “at least” 24 patients at Chelmsford had died from deep sleep therapy. The death certificates recorded causes such as cerebral haemorrhages and coronary occlusions, but experts testified in several cases that respiratory problems triggered by the deep sedation were the more likely culprit. In his 4000-page report, Acting Justice John Slattery excoriated Gill and three other men who delivered the treatment: the charismatic and erratic Dr Harry Bailey, who died in 1985, proclaiming in his suicide note that the Scientologists had won; Dr Ian Gardiner, who died in 2003; and Dr John Herron, who is alive and unwell.

Depending on who you ask, these men were unethical cowboys conducting disastrous experiments on vulnerable people (per Justice Slattery, the psychiatry establishment, the media and, yes, the Church of Scientology), or they were respected doctors safely delivering an accepted treatment of the time (per Gill and Herron, perhaps others). After years of living quietly, the two surviving doctors resurfaced with a defamation lawsuit, hoping to finally convince everyone of the latter. They were armed with an absorbing theory: Scientologists had set them up.

It is true that the Church of Scientology played an outsized role in Chelmsford’s downfall. As ABC journalist Steve Cannane revealed in his 2016 book Fair Game, the nurse who blew the whistle on the hospital was an undercover Scientologist all along. Cannane described her actions as the church’s “finest hour” in Australia: a lucky collision of L. Ron Hubbard’s rabidly anti-psychiatry views with genuine medical malpractice. 

The portrayal enraged the two doctors. They say Cannane recited the “Scientology version of events”, just as Justice Slattery did 30 years ago. It is a bold gambit. Herron is 87, Gill 78, and litigation is a hell of a way to spend retirement. Herron has no money; Gill’s house is on the line. But the two men, in the twilight of their lives, are set on exoneration.

The trial started on June 1. Australia was on edge, in what we now recognise as the uneasy space between waves of COVID-19. New cases had slowed to a trickle and much of the country was still staying home. So Herron v HarperCollins proceeded not in Courtroom 18A of the Law Courts building in Sydney, as scheduled, but via videoconferencing.

Each square of the virtual courtroom contained a different character and scene. Sequestered on the 18th floor of the courthouse itself was Justice Jayne Jagot: inscrutable, meticulous, no bullshit. Tom Blackburn SC, the silk representing Cannane and his publisher, HarperCollins, sat in a city legal office a neat 1.5 metres away from his junior, Anais D’Arville, with stacks of fat black folders behind them.

Gill and Herron’s lawyer, Sue Chrysanthou – whose ability to inject righteous outrage into the most procedural of disputes is second to none – was at home. There, chaos, in the form of two disruptive poodles, lurked just within the purview of the webcam. Her junior, Barry Dean, tuned in from a sunny spare room on the North Shore. Whenever a witness logged in, the squares would rearrange themselves into an asymmetrical grid of five for the evidence, before snapping back to the status quo when the witness was dismissed.

Everyone else in court was represented by a set of initials in one of the multicoloured circles lined up across the bottom of the screen. The idea was to stay on mute and off camera, but this did not always go to plan. One morning, the halting sound of someone practising the saxophone suddenly interrupted a tense exchange between the barristers. “I won’t critique it,” Chrysanthou said, “but it probably shouldn’t go on.” 

Among the stickybeaks were American Tony Ortega, who writes about Scientology at his blog The Underground Bunker; Esther Rockett, who spectacularly won a defamation case brought by Lismore-based Universal Medicine leader Serge Benhayon; the writer Susan Geason, who put together an unpublished manuscript about Chelmsford that Cannane used as a source; University of Sydney professor Merrilyn Walton, who pursued complaints about the doctors all the way to the High Court; a couple of other academics; a handful of journalists; and someone who regularly logged in as just “Anne”, who accidentally turned on her camera one day, revealing herself as a blonde woman wearing sunglasses.

John Gill dressed formally for the occasion of giving evidence, even though he was dialling in. He wore a suit jacket and tie, which, combined with his buttoned-up, irritable demeanour, lent a sense of uncomfortable constriction. The cream wall behind him was bifurcated by a thick curtain that looked as if it were made of tweed. A young solicitor helped navigate the reams of documents.

Tom Blackburn read aloud the only sentence in Fair Game that mentions Gill: “These advance warnings from significant figures in the medical profession did not deter Bailey and his fellow Chelmsford doctors, John Herron, John Gill and Ian Gardiner. Nor did the death toll mounting before their eyes.”

“What Mr Cannane wrote there is not the Scientology version of events, it’s Justice Slattery’s version of events, isn’t it?” the barrister asked Gill.

“That’s the stuff that Slattery says, but I don’t accept that he didn’t accept the Scientology version of the events,” Gill replied.

“I see. What, are you saying that… you’re not saying that Justice Slattery was a Scientologist, are you?” Blackburn asked, his voice imbued with fake disbelief.

“Of course, I— no such thing,” Gill shot back, annoyed. “I said Mr Slattery accepted the Scientology version of events.”

“He was conned by the Scientologists, was he?” 

“I don’t know how he made his decisions, but that was my clear-cut view, that he accepted the Scientologists.”

“The Scientologists were everywhere,” Sue Chrysanthou said as she opened Gill and Herron’s case, “when it comes to the people who were making accusations against my clients and against Chelmsford Private Hospital.”

The biggest revelation in Steve Cannane’s chapter was that nurse Rosa Nicholson had been planted at Chelmsford as part of the Church of Scientology’s relentless crusade against psychiatry. It is common knowledge that she smuggled out hospital records, but at the royal commission, Slattery found – wrongly, in the view of everyone involved in this case – that Nicholson had only joined Scientology after resigning from the hospital.

The bootleg documents were used in lawsuits, to get media onside and to lobby politicians, and ultimately bolstered the growing campaign against Chelmsford in the 1980s, which culminated in the royal commission.

The doctors say the involvement of Scientologists went further than taking and amplifying the records: they spread lies about what happened at the hospital and convinced otherwise satisfied patients that what happened to them was wrong. By the time of the royal commission, it was suggested repeatedly, the minds of key witnesses had been so poisoned by the negative publicity that the doctors could not get a fair hearing.

Slattery’s findings about Gill and Herron are astoundingly scathing, but not a silver bullet in this defamation case. The royal commission report is not admissible as evidence of what occurred at Chelmsford. To win on a defence of truth, Cannane must prove what happened at the hospital all over again – at a five-decade disadvantage and an eye-watering cost.

It is yet another instance of time being on the doctors’ side. Medical tribunal proceedings against both Gill and Herron were stayed in 1986 and again in the early ’90s, as was a manslaughter charge against Gill. The cases were considered an abuse of process, because so much time had passed since the alleged events in the 1970s.

Cannane tried to stop this defamation case on the same basis, but Justice Jagot gave it the green light. As she did so, she noted the case was “unusual”, and that it would be very difficult, perhaps even impossible, to argue a defence of truth.

Tom Blackburn said it was “almost incredible” that Cannane was being forced to disprove Gill and Herron’s “absurd” argument that deep sleep therapy was a respectable treatment and still being carried out today. “We all know, if I may say so respectfully, that it’s fanciful to think there was anything mainstream, respectable or acceptable about these treatments,” Blackburn said, adding that the expert evidence was all one way. 

Even if the doctors do win, Blackburn argued, Cannane’s book could not have affected their “rock-bottom” reputations in the wake of the royal commission.

Slattery had written: 

In summary, Dr Gill was a most unsatisfactory witness. He was prepared to lie when the occasion demanded. He ultimately continued his delusional attacks on innocent people in the witness box in the face of clear evidence that he was wrong. He prepared to involve himself in the falsification or removal of records if his interests were threatened. He showed not the slightest remorse or compassion regarding the deaths of [patients] Miriam Podio or John Adams and rejected all criticisms of his role in their management in the face of overwhelming expert opinion of his culpability.

Confronted now with this character assassination, Gill said, “I see those words, yes. I do not accept any of them.” On the stand, he found dozens of ways to disagree with Slattery’s many criticisms. “That is absurd.” “Absolutely untrue.” “Totally disagree.” “It is an amazing proposition.” “I don’t know how many times you’re going to ask me whether Justice Slattery made accurate decisions. So far, I haven’t come across one that is believable.” 

Gill’s go-to phrase as he gave evidence was, “I can’t agree with that.” It was regularly deployed in response to questions about how Chelmsford should have operated. At the hospital, nurses had discretion, within the parameters of a treatment sheet, over the dosages of barbiturates given to patients to keep them sedated. Former matron Julie Bothman testified that the often-absent doctors meant nurses were making decisions “that are not, in my experience, normal decisions nurses make”. Marcia Fawdry, who took the post after Bothman, said “at the time I thought it was appropriate”, but “I wouldn’t even work in a place like that now”. 

Gill could not agree that a doctor should have been there when sedation commenced. He could not agree that a doctor should have visited the comatose patients at least once a day. He could not agree those undergoing deep sleep therapy should have been supervised 24 hours a day by trained intensive-care nurses. He could not agree the patients should have been easily aroused for meals, or that they should have been able to walk to the toilet.

Gill, who is not a psychiatrist, only put about six people into sedation at Chelmsford. One of them, John Adams, died in “particularly egregious” circumstances, Blackburn said. “Dr Gill went off on a kind of frolic of his own and administered a regime of drugs at toxic levels that seemed to be entirely random and experimental.” A coroner found in 1980 that Adams had died from cerebral softening, after his brain was deprived of oxygen during a cardiac arrest he had while undergoing deep sleep therapy.

But Slattery had found Gill’s role as part-owner of the hospital left him responsible for the suffering and deaths of patients beyond his own. Cannane alleges he was the de facto medical superintendent of the hospital – something Gill vehemently denies. 

“You, Dr Gill, should have terminated the sedation therapy, the deep sleep therapy being carried out at Chelmsford on account of the fatalities that had occurred?” Blackburn proposed.

“I can’t agree with that,” Gill replied.

Since he was struck off as a medical practitioner in 1997 for reasons unrelated to Chelmsford, John Herron had left the deep sleep therapy scandal behind. His new life on the NSW Central Coast was filled with woodworking, floristry, a social luncheon club and amateur theatre productions. He was surrounded by tranquillity, he said – that is, until HarperCollins published Fair Game.

He says the stress created by Cannane’s book contributed to the death of his wife, Margaret, who suffered a catastrophic stroke in front of him in November 2018. “She died within minutes,” he wrote in his affidavit.

Herron looked frail and ancient in his webcam square. His mouth was ajar and head askew as he listened to the questions, white wisps of hair framing his liver-spotted scalp. But he was no pushover. Back in 1990, Slattery described Herron’s attitude to the deaths at Chelmsford as “mere statistics in a treatment program which even in 1989 he was prepared to defend”.

“I’m still prepared to defend it,” Herron told the court in July. “I don’t think I did anything wrong.”

Herron seemed less preoccupied with Scientology and more indignant about criticisms of deep sleep therapy. He rejected that the treatment caused deaths. “There were thousands of patients [at Chelmsford],” he said. “And even if you reduce it to 3000 patients, I think that is approximately two a year. And the death rate in a psychiatric hospital is much higher than that.”

On his second day of giving evidence, Herron appeared on the screen in a white gown with a pillow propping him up in bed, a blue standard-issue blanket tucked almost up to his armpits. He had fallen and been admitted to hospital, where he insisted to his lawyers that he continue to give evidence.

Herron sat up in bed and tried to answer questions, as the hospital buzzed around him. It was an agonising morning. At one point, he mistook the time on a medical sheet referred to in evidence, 5.30am, for 530 milligrams of the barbiturate Tuinal.

Gill had said “I can’t agree with that” when Blackburn suggested deep sleep therapy at Chelmsford was experimental. But, from his sickbed, Herron admitted it point blank.

“You can’t test a drug on humans for the purpose of seeing how much kills them, can you?” asked Blackburn. 

“Well, the answer to that is yes, you can,” said Herron. “There may be some impropriety in doing it that way.”

Herron said 1970s literature showing the levels at which Tuinal and its ingredients became toxic to humans were improperly researched and likely inaccurate.

“And that permitted you to disregard them?” Blackburn asked.

“How else would progress occur in anything that requires exacting measurements?”

“Did progress occur, Mr Herron, at Chelmsford in the time when you were giving deep sleep therapy to your patients?”

Herron paused. Then he asked Blackburn to repeat the question. Then he said, “Yes.”

Blackburn went to move on, but changed his mind: “Incidentally, just before I go there, Mr Herron, the progress that occurred,” the barrister said. “Was that, you say, progress in establishing how much Tuinal you needed to kill somebody?”

No, Herron replied. “I did it to find the dose which didn’t kill someone.”

When court resumed at 2.15pm, Herron was nowhere to be seen. His doctors had ordered him to rest. Later, his lawyers produced a letter from the hospital saying he was being assessed for a possible degenerative illness. For the next eight weeks, he did not return to the trial.

Both doctors claimed they had been hurt enormously by Cannane’s book, which sold 8500 copies and mentioned Gill by name once and Herron 12 times. In defamation cases, people are regularly awarded compensation for “hurt feelings”: money in exchange for emotional pain. Herron said Fair Game had flared up his depression and PTSD, and caused tension with his kids. “I felt as though all that I had gained over the last 25 years was lost because of its release,” he said. Gill, who was still working as a GP in 2019, said he struggles to sleep at night, and feels embarrassed that people who read the book will think he’s a criminal.

Both doctors agreed – Herron readily, Gill spikily – that the royal commission had been devastating for them. But they also insisted their current pain was separate: that a fresh agony was sparked in September 2016 when Herron saw an ad for Fair Game on TV and rang Gill to give him the unwelcome news.

Blackburn was sceptical. It’s clearly the royal commission, he said to Herron. The book hasn’t made anything worse.

“This has had a terrific effect on me personally and my family, and has caused disruption even beyond that which was caused by the royal commission,” the 87-year-old replied.

“Well, I suggest that you’re exaggerating,” Blackburn said.

“I am not.”

Gill’s sister, Margaret North, an 82-year-old yoga teacher, brought an unfamiliar lightness to the witness stand. Asked if she was still running classes, she answered: “I would if they hadn’t shut us down, and I don’t like doing them over Zoom.” She testified that, yes, her brother had been devastated by the royal commission.

“I want to suggest to you that that feeling of devastation that you’ve described has been present in Dr Gill since 1990,” Anais D’Arville said. North tilted her head quizzically, her eyes off the screen, thinking. “I don’t know,” she answered eventually. “No, I can’t answer that.”

Nonetheless, North went on to say that her brother had been “totally calm” about the royal commission for 30 years, until Cannane’s book brought everything up again. She then wouldn’t be drawn on whether Gill’s current pain might in fact stem from Chelmsford and not Fair Game. But, she acknowledged, “I don’t know into John’s mind.”

The hurt in this case was hardly restricted to the bruised, or even battered, egos of the doctors. In fact, trauma was palpable in the virtual courtroom.

Another witness, known as “G”, was referred to Harry Bailey in 1969. At the time, G said, she felt trapped in her marriage with an abusive, alcoholic husband, and became depressed and suicidal. Her hazy memories of Chelmsford include arriving and being told something like, “Take this, it’s just something to relax and help you sleep” before her mind went blank, and then she woke up “weak and frightened” some two or three weeks later.

“I had no idea what had happened to me. I wanted to go home,” G said in her affidavit. She was admitted for deep sleep therapy a second time the following year. 

“I vividly recall being in a room, strapped to a bed, unable to move, with a cotton curtain above my head, as I drifted in and out of consciousness,” she said. “I also recall seeing other people around me, also strapped to beds, all unconscious, and hearing screaming.” The lingering effects of her time there, she said, include an impaired memory and crippling anxiety.

On the stand, as her memory on Chelmsford was tested, G quickly became upset. “I keep telling you, I don’t remember much at all,” she said in response to one question. “Why would anyone remember that?” was the answer to another. Suddenly, she threw her glasses down on the table and her voice quavered. “I don’t want to do this. It’s horrendous.” Jagot reminded her that it was fine to simply say “I can’t remember” and asked if she would like to take a break.

G delivered an impromptu speech instead. “No, I’ll keep going,” she said. “I don’t want to be here. I’m here because these people did a great wrong to a great number of people … I’m doing this because I worked in the mental health profession too, and these sorts of people should not be allowed to practise and should be brought to trial. I don’t want to be here, but I feel like I have to be here. To speak up for people who are coming after me.”

The brittle cross-examination continued, as G tried to stick to her story and Chrysanthou tried to pick it apart. When it finally ended, G, on the brink of tears, hurled “That was disgusting. Disgusting!” at the impassive barrister. Jagot told G to please take care. Then her feed was cut and the meeting snapped back to a symmetrical grid of four, as though she had never been there at all.

Just as important as who was in court is who wasn’t. There are several barriers to truth in this case, but chief among them is the inescapable fact that many major players are dead. Harry Bailey, the architect and champion of deep sleep therapy at Chelmsford, was painted in much of the evidence as a mad-scientist archetype. He was very divisive. Of the two matrons to testify, one described him, with a gruff sort of fondness, as having had the “gift of the gab”; the other wrote in her affidavit: “I do not recall a period where Dr Bailey and I got on.” At the tail end of the 1970s, as scandal enveloped Chelmsford, Bailey had a mental breakdown and was himself admitted for deep sleep therapy.

Also among the dead: Barry Hart, perhaps Chelmsford’s most widely known patient – certainly its most vexatious – whose tragic story Cannane used to narrate his chapter. Hart was an early agitant against Chelmsford but encountered some bad luck in attracting publicity: an article about his experience was published in The Sydney Morning Herald on November 11, 1975, the day of the Dismissal. Five years later, he successfully sued Herron for assault and false imprisonment, with a jury believing he had been given ECT without his consent. But Hart was awarded paltry damages, and the case marked the start of numerous failed legal challenges over the ensuing 30 years.

There was nurse and Scientologist Rosa Nicholson. Ian Gardiner, the fourth doctor, about whom the court heard almost nothing. Slattery himself. And then there were the patients who died at Chelmsford. One man, asked if it were true his wife had been admitted to Chelmsford in 1972 with severe depression after she endured four or five miscarriages, answered “yes” with the same emotionless affect he had used to confirm his name. She had been in excellent physical health, he said, but a week after she was sedated, he arrived at Bailey’s offices in Macquarie Street and learnt she had passed away.

The man wrote in his stark affidavit that he had trusted the doctors at Chelmsford to keep his wife safe. “One moment she was alive, and the next she was dead.”

It was easy to forget among the distant tragedies and minutiae of hospital procedure that the trial was actually about a very recent book. During Cannane’s three days on the stand, he was probed on his reporting process. Both Herron and Gill complained that the journalist had not gone to them for comment, something Chrysanthou said was fatal to another of Cannane’s defences, qualified privilege. The defence requires a journalist to have acted reasonably in publishing material in the public interest; it is rarely successful.

Cannane said there were four reasons he didn’t ask Gill and Herron for comment: the book was about Scientology, not Chelmsford; what he wrote was based on the findings of an extensive public inquiry; a jury had found Herron liable for assault and false imprisonment; and he did not trust the doctors to tell him the truth.

“The journalist has an obligation to get to the bottom of the truth,” Cannane said. “If somebody is a notorious liar, or makes stuff up, or is a conspiracy theorist, you don’t necessarily have an obligation to go and hear that person.”

Chrysanthou homed in on Cannane’s account of a meeting in about 1977 at which Gill and Herron plotted to cover up the fact Barry Hart hadn’t consented to ECT. At the royal commission, nurse Rosa Nicholson had claimed to be at the meeting, but Slattery didn’t believe her, finding she was “mistaken”. The meeting made no sense regardless, Chrysanthou said, because Hart’s records, demonstrating he hadn’t consented, had already been sent to his solicitor two years earlier.

“Didn’t you think to question how absurd the 1977 meeting was given Barry Hart, his lawyers and every Sydney Morning Herald reader knew he hadn’t consented in 1975?” Chrysanthou asked. Cannane answered that Slattery’s findings had dealt with the meeting and he had no trouble accepting it.

The cross-examination proceeded at a furious pace, with none of the attendant pauses in Blackburn’s questioning of the doctors. Cannane, calm and practical, conceded a couple of mistakes but largely stuck to his guns. At one point, he was accused of cherrypicking from Slattery: disagreeing with the judge’s findings on Nicholson, but totally uninterested in any information that contradicted his negative findings about Gill and Herron.

“To be honest, they were a little bit thin on the ground, pieces of information that contradicted what Justice Slattery said,” Cannane said. On mute in his webcam square, Blackburn smiled. 

The two former matrons who testified did so in very different ways: Julie Bothman, polite and firm; Marcia Fawdry, cheerful and witty. Both carried themselves with the unflappable pragmatism you expect from a seasoned nurse. 

Shortly after she started as Chelmsford’s matron in August 1976, Bothman told the court, she overheard conversations in the tearoom about patients who had died, and went hunting for the hospital’s death certificate book. She was alarmed by what she found: patients were dying young, from causes that usually didn’t kill young people. This jarred with her experience at other psychiatric hospitals, she said, where deaths were generally restricted to long-term patients dying of old age, and the occasional suicide.

Bothman, Fawdry and others contradicted some of the most vivid imagery that has long circulated about Chelmsford. The nurses agreed deep sleep patients were incontinent in their beds, but said the patients were cleaned and changed regularly, not left to sit in their urine and faeces. Inserting catheters at that time was a recipe for urinary tract infections, the court heard. Generally, the nurses testified that they gave patients at Chelmsford a high standard of care, but criticised deep sleep therapy and the weight of responsibility placed upon registered nurses and their assistants.

Bothman clashed terribly with Bailey – “I always thought Dr Bailey was insane, actually,” she had told the royal commission – and quit after five months. But Chelmsford remained part of her life for more than a decade, as she was frequently approached by police and others, and asked to talk about what she had witnessed. 

In mid 1978, Bothman told the court, she rang a number attached to a notice in The Sydney Morning Herald, asking people to get in touch about Chelmsford. Two women came to her house and asked her questions about the hospital, saying they would return the next night with a document for her to sign. When Bothman mentioned the visit to her friends, they said the women were probably Scientologists. “I was pretty shocked,” she said. “So, when they came back the next night with the document, I wouldn’t let them in the door and told them I wasn’t going to sign the statement.” The women were likely from the Citizens Commission on Human Rights, an anti-psychiatry Scientology front group that became enmeshed with the efforts of former patients to hold Chelmsford doctors to account. Bothman’s statement somehow wound up in the hands of police – one of many unexplained oddities involving Scientology in this case.

Fawdry was the only witness in the entire trial who was subpoenaed. If the law had not compelled her to be there, she would not have been. Oddly, she was also the most cheerful witness, bantering with the lawyers about French swearwords, and how much she loathes the word “matron”.

During her time at Chelmsford, Fawdry testified, she had attended the 1977 meeting with Gill, Herron, and hospital receptionist Mollie Sansom, where they discussed how to cover up the fact Hart had not consented to ECT. She first gave this evidence at the royal commission in 1989. Before then, she said, she had dodged the question when asked by police, worried she might be implicated by her presence. Chrysanthou put to her that the meeting never happened, that Fawdry invented it out of spite. “I suggest to you that by 1989 you absolutely detested Dr Gill,” the barrister said. Fawdry replied: “Oh, it was well before then.”

Gill had fired Fawdry in June 1978 when she was the single mother of three young kids. Gill and Herron also recorded a phone call with Fawdry, without her knowledge, to use as evidence at the royal commission, which hadn’t helped her opinion of them. “I was pissed off with both of them, yeah,” she admitted. But Fawdry insisted she wasn’t lying about the meeting. In the lengthy back and forth about why she hadn’t mentioned it prior to the commission, she bluntly offered: “Really, all I can say is that I was covering my arse.”

Fawdry said it was a relief to finally tell the commission about the meeting after lying about it to police for so long. After she gave that evidence, she said, “I went out to get in the lift and go home, and Barry Hart came into the lift and shook my hand and thanked me. He’d been waiting a long time for the truth.”

As the trial went on, the virtual courtroom, with its shifting squares and technical problems, had become claustrophobic. The weeks had been full of illness, death, bodily fluids, shame, anger and regret. On what was meant to be the penultimate Friday, an inexplicable malfunction started to boot Jagot from the meeting every six minutes, as if the software itself was saying “Enough!” (Yes, one of the lawyers made a joke about billable hours.) The judge was forced to log back in over and over, before giving up and switching to a laptop.

A queue of expert psychiatrists including Patrick McGorry, Ian Hickie and Gordon Parker lined up to condemn the doctors, many of them acknowledging the horrible history of their profession as they went. One of the experts, Dr John Sydney Smith, was cited in Bailey’s suicide note as one of the people who had driven the doctor to death. When asked if he knew Bailey hated him, he said, “I wouldn’t be surprised.” The court heard about leucotomies, lobotomies, insulin coma therapy, hysteria, treatments to turn gay people straight. Not a single witness to take the stand, other than Gill and Herron, supported deep sleep therapy as it was delivered at Chelmsford.

Initially allocated six weeks, the trial blew out. Closing submissions were put back to late August, and Herron’s unfinished evidence remained a problem. Chrysanthou wanted to strike out his morning in hospital and excuse him from returning. Blackburn disagreed. 

After a two-week hiatus, everyone logged back on in late July to hear a geriatrician and a neurologist opine on Herron’s capability. They discussed his brain scans and his result in the Montreal Cognitive Assessment, recently made famous by Donald Trump’s brag about his own perfect score. Some of the answers Herron gave from his hospital bed were “utter nonsense”, Chrysanthou said. He clearly couldn’t mount the defence he would otherwise have been able to against Blackburn’s “medically unsound” questions. But Jagot was unmoved: the expert reports showed disadvantage, not incapacity. “This is just miles off a person who’s incompetent,” she said, and ordered Herron to return to the stand.

So the trial dragged on over a number of mornings in August as Blackburn, now tuning in from London, took Herron to task, slowly and for the umpteenth time, over his past decisions. The former doctor, once a precocious rising star in psychiatry, agreed he had given Barry Hart ECT six times. But he demurred on the decades-old argument of whether Hart consented. It’s up to Cannane to prove he didn’t. 

“You know that Mr Hart never signed the Chelmsford ECT consent form. That’s something we can all agree on,” Blackburn said. “Well, there was a lot of discussion about it, whether or not,” Herron replied. “I don’t know that anyone knows.”

Jagot is likely to reserve her decision on the case after closing submissions, taking some time to consider the weeks of evidence.

Legally speaking, a defamation case cannot override a royal commission, or vice versa. They are judicial apples and oranges, with only a few things in common: neither can convict or exonerate, both can rewrite history.

As G told the court in tears, she did not want to be there, on a webcam, telling socially distanced strangers about what happened to her all those years ago. “I’ve spent a lot of years trying to suppress this because it’s so painful,” she said. She wasn’t the only one who couldn’t recall large swathes of her experience. Many witnesses were presented with past statements as their memory faltered – from the commission, police interviews, coronial inquiries, and the numerous other proceedings spawned from Chelmsford – and had their old words used against them to suggest they had lied, or been influenced, or changed their story. 

But while Gill and Herron are determined to change the Chelmsford narrative, others took the stand just as intent on seeing Slattery’s findings endure. The only person in this case who would have just walked away was the subpoenaed Fawdry. To so many other witnesses, the staying of proceedings in the ’80s and ’90s must have felt like the doctors getting off scot-free. Gill and Herron themselves testified that they had left Chelmsford behind and learnt to live with the blows dealt by the commission – or, in the unspoken alternate, learnt to live with what they had done.

As she grilled him on why he had believed Barry Hart, Chrysanthou asked Cannane: did you find it unusual that so many years later he remained fixated on his time at Chelmsford? “Not really,” Cannane replied, “because he felt like he was a victim of injustice twice. A victim of injustice at Chelmsford and a victim of injustice in the legal system.”

“His experiences had ruined his life,” the journalist added. “I’m not surprised that people like that find it hard to let go.”

On November 25, 2020, Justice Jagot dismissed Gill and Herron’s defamation case. They’ve been ordered to pay the legal costs of Cannane and HarperCollins.

Lane Sainty

Lane Sainty is a reporter covering courts in Sydney.

From the front page

Image of Joseph Engel and Sara Montpetit in Falcon Lake, directed by Charlotte Le Bon. Photo by Fred Gervais, courtesy of MK2 and Metafilms

Cannes Film Festival 2022 highlights: part one

Mia Hansen-Løve’s ‘One Fine Morning’, Charlotte Le Bon’s ‘Falcon Lake’ and Dmytro Sukholytkyy-Sobchuk’s ‘Pamfir’ were bright spots in an otherwise underwhelming line-up

Image of a man updating a board showing a tally of votes during independent candidate Zoe Daniel’s reception for the 2022 federal election. Image © Joel Carrett / AAP Images

The art of the teal

Amid the long decline of the major parties, have independents finally solved the problem of lopsided campaign financing laws?

Image of Monique Ryan and family on election night

The end of Liberal reign in Kooyong

At the Auburn Hotel on election night, hope coalesces around Monique Ryan

Illustration by Jeff Fisher

OnlyFans and the adults in the room

The emerging OnlyFans community offering training and support to adult-content creators

In This Issue

Detail of cover of ‘Surviving Autocracy’

Attack on language: ‘Surviving Autocracy’ and ‘Twilight of Democracy’

Masha Gessen and Anne Applebaum sound alarms on how ‘post-truth’ public debate leaves us mute in the face of autocracy

Image from ‘ZeroZeroZero’

‘Cinematic’ television: ‘ZeroZeroZero’

Forget comparisons to cinema, TV is developing its own compelling aesthetic

Image of Dolly Parton

Audio tapestry

A tangle of red tape is robbing us of music podcasts in Australia

Image of Mike Pompeo and Marise Payne

Choppy waters

Australia’s assumption that China will give up its Pacific rivalry with the US is dangerously misguided

More in The Monthly Essays

Image of Labor Party election-night event at the Canterbury-Hurlstone Park RSL, Sydney

Teal and loathing: On the campaign trail

The seismic shift around the country that saw voters turn on the Coalition and deliver a Labor victory

Image of red-paint hands on Yuendumu Police Station

The death of Kumanjayi Walker

On the shooting in Yuendumu and the trial of Northern Territory policeman Zachary Rolfe

Image of Prime Minister Scott Morrison during Question Time, 2021

Morrison’s power without purpose

As prime minister, Scott Morrison has offered neither competence nor vision

Portrait of Zoe Daniel

Independents and the balance of power

The federal election may hinge on a new crossbench of professional women in wealthy inner-city seats and a rural revolt against the Nationals

Online exclusives

Image of Joseph Engel and Sara Montpetit in Falcon Lake, directed by Charlotte Le Bon. Photo by Fred Gervais, courtesy of MK2 and Metafilms

Cannes Film Festival 2022 highlights: part one

Mia Hansen-Løve’s ‘One Fine Morning’, Charlotte Le Bon’s ‘Falcon Lake’ and Dmytro Sukholytkyy-Sobchuk’s ‘Pamfir’ were bright spots in an otherwise underwhelming line-up

Image of a man updating a board showing a tally of votes during independent candidate Zoe Daniel’s reception for the 2022 federal election. Image © Joel Carrett / AAP Images

The art of the teal

Amid the long decline of the major parties, have independents finally solved the problem of lopsided campaign financing laws?

Image of Monique Ryan and family on election night

The end of Liberal reign in Kooyong

At the Auburn Hotel on election night, hope coalesces around Monique Ryan

Image of US President Joe Biden meeting virtually with Chinese President Xi Jinping from the Roosevelt Room of the White House, November 15, 2021. Image © Susan Walsh / AP Photo

The avoidable war

Kevin Rudd on China, the US and the forces of history