Journalism legend reflects on the power of the media spotlight

University of Melbourne, Charlotte Grieve

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Walter “Robbie” Robinson led The Boston Globe’s celebrated Spotlight investigative team to uncover one of the most seismic news stories of our times. En route to Australia – and the University of Melbourne – to speak about journalism and the continuing crisis of clerical abuse, he talks to Charlotte Grieve.

The last time Walter Robinson visited Australia it was 1970. He was serving as an intelligence officer with the US Army in Vietnam and chose Sydney for his precious “R & R” leave.

He fondly recalls that week – the rugby, the good food, the beer, the hospitality. He very nearly found himself adopted by a local family. “I had a wonderful time,” he recalls down the line from home in Boston.

Almost half a century later, the 72-year-old editor-at-large of The Boston Globe returns next week to Melbourne and Sydney to headline a series of discussions around the role and future of investigative journalism in today’s ever-shifting media landscape.

Robinson’s journalism career spans four decades at the Globe, reporting from 48 states and 34 countries. He’s covered four presidential elections, two presidencies and one-and-a-half wars. But his most important legacy, now seared into popular culture courtesy of the Academy Award winning movie Spotlight, was running the epic 2001-02 investigation that blew the lid on widespread child sexual abuse by Catholic clergymen across Massachusetts.

In the years since, entrenched patterns of clerical abuse and cover-up by the church have been exposed worldwide, including prompting a Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse in Australia. The Globe’s investigation is credited for giving crucial momentum to the global rush of revelations.

In the movie, Robinson is portrayed by Michael Keaton as the tough-talking, soft-souled “player coach” of the Spotlight team. By all accounts it’s an honest rendering of the man, the team, and the moment. Robinson says he was impressed by the efforts of cast and crew to ensure an authentic retelling of the story.

Born and raised a Catholic in famously faithful Boston, Robinson had deep connections – a blessing and a curse when it comes to digging the dirt as a hometown journalist. His father was a Republican state politician and his mother a part-time book-keeper. Robinson describes his early life as one of “lively discussions” between his parents, himself and three sisters around the dining room table.

It was an era where “newspapers were king”, Robinson’s first job was delivering the city’s newspapers. He recalls collecting stacks of late editions in the dark mornings, and the thrill of being the first person to read the headlines.

“I was always drawn to knowing what was happening before everybody else.”

Robinson was educated by the Boston College High School, a Jesuit-run boys’ school, which happens to neighbour the Globe’s offices. His tertiary studies at Northeastern University were interrupted by a four-year stint in the US Army. Robinson was “draft-induced” – meaning he enlisted when he learned he would be drafted, giving him the opportunity of officer training in Hawaii. In 1969, he was due to be discharged but extended his service to go to the war in Vietnam. “Mostly so I could find out for myself why we were there.”

In some ways he resents those years, in part for delaying the start of his journalism career. But in others, he says that time made him more mature, improved his judgement and made him a “better thinker”.

“I was in the intelligence business … the business of finding out things,” he says. “The methods are obviously somewhat different [to journalism] but you’re gathering information and trying to make sense of it. And it’s information that matters to people, in some cases, lives depends on it.”

After the military, he completed his studies and started at the Globe working a range of beats. He climbed the ladders of news reporting – metro, state, federal and then international as the Middle Eastern bureau chief. In all those roles, the one constant was exposing wrongdoings of those in power.

“At the time, nobody called it investigative reporting,” he says. “We were just reporters who tried to dig out the truth.”

From the innumerable stories of Robinson’s career, the Spotlight investigation into clerical abuse, and the efforts of church hierarchy to cover it up, is unparalleled.

“There is no story that The Boston Globe has published since it began operations in 1872 that is anywhere nearly as important as that was,” he says. “And a second place isn’t even close.”

Under Robinson’s leadership, the Spotlight team of four fought for the release of thousands of documents that had been sealed by the Catholic Church. These documents, combined with victim testimonies, formed the basis of substantial evidence that there was not only a history of abuse but also concealment.

In 2002, they published close to 600 stories in which they accused 249 priests and brothers of sexual abuse within the Boston Archdiocese.

The investigation resulted in the 2002 resignation of Cardinal Bernard Law, head of the Boston Archdiocese. It also prompted the passing of legislation in many American states to ensure clergy members became “mandated reporters” of abuse. This made it a criminal offence to withhold knowledge of abuse, a requirement from which the church was previously exempt.

At the time, it was a high-stakes campaign for the Globe to pursue, risking upsetting the Boston establishment and readership just as print media was starting to feel the pinch of competition from online media. “We expected lots of protesters because the Cardinal disliked the Globe and conservative Catholics didn’t like us either,” he says. “But we had documents, so they [Catholics] didn’t blame the messenger, they blamed the church.”

Hundreds of survivors came forward to share their accounts of abuse. The team received phone calls and emails from across the nation and the world, including Australia. “The shame and guilt that kept people in the dark for so long diminished,” says Robinson.

The exposé won the 2003 Pulitzer Prize for Public Service. It sparked a cascade of investigations globally where journalists began looking in their own backyards to expose paedophile priests and give voice to survivors.

But Robinson remains dissatisfied with the responses to date from the Catholic Church. “I really hold that institution in such low regard.”

He says the reforms were made “at the point of a gun”, and he’s fearful for congregations in developing countries where authorities shy away from taking action against clerical abuse.

His concerns are validated by a recent report by RMIT’s Centre for Global Research that trawled through a litany of official reports from across the world since 1985 – royal commissions, police reports, judicial inquiries and more. It concluded that children most in danger of abuse are now in 9000 Catholic-run orphanages in India and Italy.

As for the underlying drivers of abuse, the veteran journalist blames Catholicism’s requirement of clerical celibacy as a “major factor”. Australia’s Royal Commission recognised this and recommended celibacy be voluntary late last year.

“To say that it [celibacy] is unnatural is an understatement,” Robinson says. “That they will never have a loving relationship with another person of either sex, and that you have to live alone in a drafty old rectory. The question you get is what kind of applicant pool do you get when those are your requirements?”

Reflecting on the changes and challenges in journalism today, Robinson points out that the Spotlight investigation was kickstarted by a story written by the one of the Globe’s court reporters. “The fact is, we no longer cover that courthouse,” he says.

He’s witnessed the scaling back of editorial resources, a universal story in print media. Where the Globe once had seven foreign bureaux, now there are none. Newsroom numbers have halved.

“Valuable links in the [news] chain have gone missing. And because of that, there are extraordinarily important stories that we just don’t know about,” he says.

“The loser is the public and when the public loses, democracy is diminished.”

He blames the decline in quality reporting for creating a “woefully ill-informed” public and political climate. But he remains hopeful. “I think that’s changing to an extent.”

He channels that optimism into his advisory role at the Globe and shaping the next generation of journalists as an educator in Arizona and Northeastern University. “You can’t spend a lot of time around students and not be optimistic.”

Emerging journalists are more forward thinking than his generation, he says. Their task now is to persuade the public to pay for news. “They will figure that out. Because information is power, it’s valuable and ultimately, people are going to be willing to pay for that.”

His passion for journalism is plainly undiminished, answering questions late into the Boston night. And he has some questions of his own about recent turns in the clerical abuse story in Australia. He’s critical of Australia’s court suppression laws. “How can justice be rendered in private?” he asks. “Justice is rendered in private in totalitarian countries. Not in free countries.”

The interview ends with a question – his advice for young journalists?

“Never take no for an answer.”

This story is co-published by SBS News.