George Pell spent decades cultivating the Murdoch press, duchessing editors and senior journalists. The impacts of that political manoeuvring are clear in the coverage since his death. By Richard Ackland.

How Cardinal George Pell seduced News Corp

An older Caucasian man in a suit is wearing some sort of red decoration around his neck, while a Catholic bishop in a white robe, tall hat and holding a cane looks on. The picture is grainy and obviously from the late 90s.
Rupert Murdoch is awarded a papal knighthood in 1998 after donating $US10 million to the Los Angeles Catholic diocese.
Credit: AP

This is a story about influence, the media and Cardinal George Pell. For decades, as he climbed the hierarchy of the Catholic Church, he also worked assiduously to cultivate the press, especially Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp papers.

He dined with journalists and wrote a regular tabloid column. He would frequently telephone opinion writers and introduced his editor to the pope. Above all, he knew the importance of the media to his ambition and his style of politics.

Just before the start of his trial on child sex assault charges, Pell had dinner with The Australian’s foreign editor, Greg Sheridan, at an Indian restaurant in Melbourne’s Camberwell.

Sheridan says the meal was interrupted three times by people approaching the cardinal to wish him well.

Writing after Pell’s death, Sheridan said he “loved” the cardinal. He described him as funny, sophisticated, earthy and immensely good.

“As John Howard argues, Pell was imprisoned because of who he was,” Sheridan wrote. “Pell was perhaps the first senior church leader in any Western democracy to go to jail essentially because he was an orthodox Christian with the temerity to talk back to the culture.”

Chris Mitchell, who was editor-in-chief of The Australian for 13 years, says he met with Pell on formal occasions such as World Youth Day. He said Pell’s influence at the paper was connected to a “Catholic mafia” that worked there, which included Sheridan, political editor Dennis Shanahan, editor-at-large Paul Kelly and contributor Gerard Henderson.

Rupert Murdoch is reputed to have said his preferred recruit was someone straight out of a mid-level Catholic school who wears short-sleeved shirts to work.

John Hartigan, who was chief executive of News Ltd for 11 years and chairman for six until 2011, says he met Pell on several occasions, like most people at the top end of town.

He believed that columnist Piers Akerman had a close connection with Pell, while Sheridan was usually “pumping up his tyres”.

Neil Breen, who was editor of The Sunday Telegraph between 2006 and 2012, inherited the weekly column written by Pell. He told The Saturday Paper he found the churchman “unfailingly polite and respectful”.

The copy was faxed, written in longhand and always on time.

Breen occasionally went over to St Mary’s Cathedral to talk with Pell and eventually The Sunday Telegraph was appointed “the official newspaper for World Youth Day” when it was held in Sydney in 2008.

Another source tells The Saturday Paper that the late Jane Fraser, a journalist at The Australian and writer of the “Plainly Jane” column, arranged lunch gatherings in Glebe with former editor Frank Devine, P.  P. “Paddy” McGuinness and English priest Father James Murray, among others, at which George Pell was a frequent guest. She also held wine and cheese salons at which Pell would hold court.

Fraser was adept at arranging social gatherings and cozy tete-a-tetes and, as a board member of The Catholic Weekly, she had a prime seat at the table.

Adding to Pell’s influence was the fact his biographer, Tess Livingstone, was a senior journalist at The Australian and was always very supportive.

According to Tony Koch, the legendary chief reporter for The Australian in Queensland, the paper’s approach to Pell was a result of the “cultural affinity” he had with the people working on it.

When allegations about Pell’s conduct in Ballarat first arose, Chris Mitchell dispatched a journalist to investigate.

He told The Saturday Paper it was “concluded that the main beef was with Gerald Ridsdale”, the serial paedophile who is serving a 36-year jail sentence for abusing close to 70 children.

The Australian decided the Ballarat allegations came from broken people who were “pretty confused”.

Later, the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse found in a detailed 500-page case study that Pell and other senior figures in the Catholic Church knew about Ridsdale’s offending and protected him.

Sheridan maintains this “contradicts Pell’s testimony and is not remotely proved”.

The day after Pell’s death, The Australian published 20 swooning articles, and another 26 up to the middle of this week. More will be there today.

The tenor was uniformly positive: “A true giant of the church … Pell’s attackers wide of the mark … Media pile-on fuelled by flawed commission … Daniel Andrews fights anti-Pell culture war … Last farewell for God’s strong man … Good Christian soul … A great servant and teacher …”

In the Herald Sun, columnist Andrew Bolt described his final phone call with Pell and the realisation that “I’ll never speak again to this holy man”.

The article went on to say that the High Court found the prelate “innocent” of child sexual abuse. This must have surprised the justices who decided only that the prosecution did not meet the required standard.

Lucie Morris-Marr, who broke the story in the Herald Sun that Pell was being investigated over child sexual abuse claims, says she was pushed out of News Corp after Bolt complained about her coverage. Bolt denies this.

Pell’s close relationship with News Corp was also reflected in how he approached other outlets. One longstanding Fairfax journalist, who preferred not to be named, said Pell liked to schmooze with those he saw as allies and freeze out the rest. During his coverage of Pell, it was common to receive defamation threats from Pell’s lawyers at Corrs Chambers Westgarth.

Peter Fray, former editor-in-chief of The Sydney Morning Herald and later deputy editor of The Australian, agrees with this assessment. Fairfax was “too Anglican” for Pell.

Pell’s influence in the press was also connected to his political skill. He understood power and how to use it.

In 1998, he made one such intervention, going a long way to helping John Howard win that year’s election. At the time, the proposal for a goods and services tax, with its adverse impact on low-income earners, had many Catholic charitable organisations enraged, issuing broadsides against the government.

Pell held aloft his mighty hand and announced that there was more than one Catholic view on this, and his view was that a GST was crucial. Essentially he was telling the country’s five million or so Catholics to vote for Howard.

Howard never looked back. He rewarded Pell with funding for Catholic universities and schools and later gave an infamous pre-sentencing character reference.

As to the guilty verdict on five counts of child sexual abuse, Howard wrote: “None of these matters alter my opinion of the Cardinal.”

After the verdict, former prime minister Tony Abbott also described Pell as a “fine man” and more recently, after his death, as a “saint”.

The current leader of the Liberal Party, Peter Dutton, made the alarming claim that his conviction and sentence was the fault of the Victorian Labor government.

The conviction that was overturned by the High Court “should provide some cause for reflection for the Victorian Labor government and its institutions that led this modern-day political persecution”.

A couple of asides deserve mention.

Shortly after the World Youth Day events, there was a gathering at the offices of St Mary’s to meet the pope. About 50 or 60 attended, including John Howard and his wife, Janette, various other dignitaries and Neil Breen.

The editor was introduced to the pontiff by Pell, who said, “Your Holiness, this is Neil Breen, the editor of The Sunday Telegraph.”

Breen said that Pell wrote a column for the paper, prompting Pope Benedict XVI to ask the cardinal, “So you’re a journalist, too?”

Breen piped up and said: “He’s only a journalist after I’ve fixed up his copy.”

The Australian’s Paul Kelly accompanied a media contingent on Pope Benedict’s plane from Rome to Sydney for the event. He got to ask the pontiff a question about what message he would give to help Australia overcome its religious indifference.

It was left to another journalist to ask Benedict whether the Catholic Church should apologise for the sexual abuse of children by priests. In response, the pope said he preferred to concentrate on “how we can prevent and how we all can heal and reconcile”.

For News Corp it was never simply a matter of supporting Pell. It was also important to obliterate his critics.

The ABC’s Louise Milligan did a 7.30 story in July 2016 on the young men who complained they were sexually assaulted by Pell at the Eureka pool in Ballarat. She also wrote the Walkley Award-winning Cardinal, which exposed many of Pell’s predations.

Her work on Pell prompted a blizzard of attacks in the pages of The Australian. Columnist Gerard Henderson mentioned her 446 times in 37 months.

Between May 2017, when Cardinal was published, up to August 2021, Milligan was adversely mentioned by Henderson in more than 100 of his columns. A printout of attacks published by News Corp on the ABC journalist runs for more than 1000 pages.

In 1998 Rupert Murdoch was given a papal knighthood after donating $US10 million to the Los Angeles Catholic diocese. His then wife, Anna Murdoch, was made a Dame of the Order of St Gregory the Great.

In February 2014, when Rupert Murdoch was still using Twitter, he posted: “Pope Francis appoints brilliant Cardinal Pell from Sydney to be no.3 power in Vatican. Australia will miss him but world will benefit.”

Murdoch is not officially a Catholic, but he is a believer, if not a follower, of the Catholic version of ethics and morals. There was agitation during the phone-hacking scandal in London for his papal knighthood to be stripped.

After the ceremony at which the honours were bestowed, Anna Murdoch said, “We are both trying hard to get through the eye of the needle.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on January 21, 2023 as "How Cardinal George Pell seduced News Corp".

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