Was The Media To Blame For Ashleigh Petrie’s Death?

Last night, Media Watch asked whether heavy media scrutiny played a part in the death of a young woman engaged to a man several decades her senior.

Court clerk Ashleigh Petrie, 23, announced her engagement to magistrate Rodney Higgins, 68, last month. A few short weeks later, she died on the side of the road in rural Victoria, in what Media Watch reported last night appeared to be a suicide.

Speaking to the ABC’s Paul Barry via a statement, Higgins said he “begged” his fiancee to stay with him in their hotel, but that she said she “needed to clear her head”.

“Over the next hour, she sent me four or five text and voice messages, one of which said, ‘I can’t cope with all the coverage’. She apologised to me and said she loved me, but I’d be better off without her,” he said.

Ashleigh announced her engagement while the couple were in Fiji: “It started with a crush and now I have a ring on my finger. The love of my life asked me to marry him and I said YESSSS.”

Petrie and Higgins first made headlines in a Herald Sun exclusive, which reported the judicial watchdog had been asked to investigate their relationship due to its “unconventional” age difference. Although the first report was mostly focused on Higgins – citing allegations of a drinking problem and questions of suitability for the role – follow up coverage largely focused on Petrie, with multiple outlets reporting on her previous relationships with older men. The Daily Mail even tapped a “body language expert” to claim their relationship was doomed.

“I have no doubt at all that the Herald Sun and Daily Mail articles tipped her over the top,” Higgins told Media Watch.

However, both the Herald Sun and the Daily Mail denied Petrie was anything other than open about her relationship, with Herald Sun editor Damon Johnston even claiming she saw herself as a “whistleblower” who “wanted to lift the lid on a toxic culture at the [magistrates] court”. Deputy editor Chris Tinkler claimed she was a “key source for all but one” of the Herald Sun’s articles on concerns about inappropriate behaviour in courts, sharing screenshots of a Facebook messenger conversation between Petrie and an unnamed reporter.

“She sought to expose ‘toxic culture’,” Tinkler said.

Police will prepare a report on Petrie’s death for the Coroner.

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