Days 11 to 13 – 15 to 17 June 2020 – Cross examination of Steve Cannane
Dr John Gill and former psychiatrist John Herron, who were involved in the deep sleep therapy and electroconvulsive therapy scandal at the Chelmsford Private Hospital in Sydney in the 1960s and 1970s, are suing HarperCollins Publishers Australia and ABC journalist Steve Cannane for defamation over a 28 page chapter of Cannane’s book Fair Game: The Incredible Untold Story of Scientology in Australia.
See this link for the trial’s listing details at the Federal Court in Sydney.
Days 11 – 13: Cannane cross examination
Cannane’s evidence in chief has been given in the form of affidavits.
In cross examination, counsel for the applicants (plaintiffs), Sue Chrysanthou asked Cannane if the chapters of his book that refer to well known Australians such as Nicole Kidman and James Packer’s connections to Scientology would make it attractive to a broad audience, including readers interested in celebrity gossip. He said that was possible but he didn’t think it was about that. He said it was more of a niche publication and he wrote it because there were human rights abuses going on inside the Church of Scientology (CoS) which he thought were worth exposing.
When asked if he was aware that the major demographic of people who had bought his book was aged 18 – 49, he said he was not.
Former patient BH
Eight pages of the chapter on the Chelmsford Private Hospital relate to patient BH’s experience there and his dealings with the then Dr Herron in 1973, who he successfully sued in 1980. Among the jury’s findings was that BH had been falsely imprisoned at the hospital.
Early pages of the chapter featured an account from BH’s perspective of being put under sedation and his condition when he woke up. Ms Chrysanthou put it to the author that the Chelmsford Hospital Royal Commission made no findings on some of the complaints in BH’s first hand account. Cannane agreed he could have checked those details with a nurse. He then agreed there was material on those early pages that were not a report of of the findings of the RC.
Further cross-examination focused on BH’s reliability as a witness. Cannane was asked if he was concerned that BH was a person who’d made serious complaints about a wide range of professionals including doctors, lawyers and the judge in his civil case. Cannane responded that he ‘was always weighing these things up’ and that he ‘would have looked at the facts he gave me’. He said he took into account BH’s circumstances and that the patient was suffering post traumatic stress. He said that he is always concerned about whether someone is telling the truth.
Much of the questioning on days 11 and 12 focused on the sources of material for the chapter.
Chrysanthou took the author to endnotes in his chapter where he cited an unpublished manuscript Dark Trance by journalist Susan Geason, or a book by Janet Fife-Yeomans and Brian Bromberger, Deep sleep: Harry Bailey and the scandal of Chelmsford, over the Royal Commission findings. She put it to Cannane that his endnotes record the best source he had at the time of publication of the book. He said that he did not include references to the Royal Commission findings at every instance in which he relied upon them. He added that he’d included about 50 references to the Royal Commission documents within the 28 page chapter.
When asked why he referenced the Geason manuscript rather than the RC findings to support an allegation doctors at Chelmsford hospital had engaged in defrauding health funds, Ms Chrysanthou put it to Cannane that, ‘if you’d had such references for such a serious allegation you would have put them in the endnotes.’
The author responded, ‘not necessarily’ and that he was not familiar with the use of endnotes, it being the first book he’d written in which he used them. He conceded that his use of them may not have been ‘best practice’.
Cannane also denied he had made allegations about the applicants specifically where he’d attributed certain scandalous activity to another Chelmsford doctor or as events that went on at Chelmsford Hospital.
The author was taken to a paragraph on p.184 of his book about a nurse salvaging records from a rubbish bin, ‘which showed doctors defrauding the patient’s health funds.’
Ms Chrysanthou asked, ‘do you accept the possibility that the reader would think that refers to Dr Gill?’
Cannane replied that would be a misinterpretation of what he’d written. ‘Bear in mind [Dr Gill’s] only mentioned once in the book,’ he said. ‘They’ve probably forgotten him by this stage.’
Reliance on Chelmsford Hospital Royal Commission Report
Ms Chrysanthou questioned Cannane’s reliance on the findings of the Royal Commission. It became apparent in the years after the RC that some of the evidence given there, including that given by Rosa Nicholson, the Scientologist nurse that removed medical records from the hospital, was not reliable.
During one exchange, Cannane said, ‘I do know deep sleep therapy patients were denied visitation rights.’
Ms Chrysanthou asked whether he knew that had happened or whether he knew that Justice Slattery had asserted it had happened. Cannane replied that Justice Slattery’s findings were the primary source. Cannane said that he had relied on the judge’s report on his 21 month inquiry.
‘You trusted it without checking any of the evidence put forward by the doctors?’
‘I trusted his [Justice Slattery’s] assessment.’
Chrysanthou then asked, ‘what’s the point of investigating anything if you’re just going to trust what Justice Slattery said?’
Counsel also put it to Cannane that he had put a lot of weight on the Royal Commission Report and the jury’s findings in the civil case brought by BH ‘but you made no reference to all the cases my clients won.’ She referred to the applicants’ success at having criminal charges and misconduct proceedings against them stayed. Cannane replied that those wins did not prove that they were innocent.
Chrysanthou said the proceedings were stayed on the basis that the events in issue had occurred too far in the past for the doctors to receive a fair trial. ‘That was in 1986,’ she said. ‘You know that’s precisely what the Royal Commission went on to do? You weren’t concerned at all as an investigative journalist that it wasn’t safe to make findings about events decades in the past?’
Cannane responded, ‘no, I didn’t think that at all.’ He said that if that was the case, a journalist couldn’t write a book on war crimes or other things in the past. He pointed out that Justice Slattery thought it possible to investigate past events.
Ms Chrysanthou also raised that charges were dropped in some cases due to insufficient evidence. ‘Nowhere in the chapter do you list any of the favourable findings that have been made by solictor generals, crown solicitors, courts in relation to my clients.’
Cannane responded, ‘depends on what you mean by favourable… when [yesterday] you were labelling them victories and I would refer to them as stays.’
Did not contact the applicants
Cannane was also questioned a number of times to the effect of whether he thought it was responsible not to approach Gill and Herron for their side of the story. Cannane said he chose to rely on other material, including Justice Slattery’s findings and the verdict of the civil case against Mr Herron.
Cannane said that he had suspicions nurse Rosa Nicholson was a Scientologist before she was sent into Chelmsford to get evidence of misconduct. Chrysanthou said that if Cannane had asked Herron whether he thought the nurse was a Scientologist, he could have told Cannane that ‘he’d figured out’ that she was.
Ms Chrysanthou suggested to Cannane that fairness to her clients was irrelevant to him and that he was of the view that it wasn’t worth his time to speak to the applicants. ‘Your book was about Scientology and not my clients directly and therefore you didn’t want to focus much time on that, is that right?’
Cannane responded that the focus of his book was Scientology; and the focus of the chapter in question was the Scientology operation to expose what happened at Chelmsford. He said that he didn’t feel the need to give them an opportunity to respond to the section he wrote based upon the Royal Commission findings because he felt that section in the chapter was a fair report of a fair report. He said ‘they had legal representation at that inquiry’ and were given ‘a fair go’ at responding to the allegations there. ‘I felt like they were dealt with fairly and if I followed what Justice Slattery found I felt like that was good enough.’ Cannane added, ‘I did not trust them to tell the truth,’ and in ‘Justice Slattery’s findings there’s at least 10 or 12 times where he makes comments that they did not tell the truth or they lied under oath,’ both at the Royal Commission and in the case of Mr Herron during the civil case against him.
Chrysanthou contended that he gave Scientologist Jan Eastgate the opportunity to respond to his allegations after he’d come to the conclusion she too had lied under oath. Cannane answered that he gave her the chance to respond to allegations that had never been tested. He disagreed with Chrysanthou’s assertion ‘there’s no difference’ between the situations.
Toward the end of the cross examination she asked if Cannane was of the view that Royal Commission findings are like a criminal guilty verdict.
‘I didn’t say that,’ he responded. He did not agree with counsel’s closing assertions, that he was ‘extremely unfair’ to the applicants.
(Comments are moderated. I won’t be allowing any comments that push a Scientology agenda.)
To any concerned readers, I will not be publishing the names of any former patients who give evidence.