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City Desk
17 June, 2010  
Oz v Overland

Mullettgate … Fontainebleaugate … The Australian’s case against Victoria’s chief copper Simon Overland … But there is a hole in the key allegation … A few more facts would help … In the meantime enjoy the relentless tub thumping

imageEvery time I see the name “Mr Mullett” I’m overcome by a mild attack of conniptions. Is this a serious person fuelling a serious allegation, or is it a dark character escaped from a Dickens’ story?

The Australian newspaper has spent the last week endeavouring to buttress its Mullett (pic) inspired insistence that Victorian police commissioner Simon Overland is responsible for derailing a murder investigation because he “inadvertently” leaked the details of a telephone intercept to his PR man, Stephen Linnell.

As is widely known the intercept picked-up the former police union strong man Paul Mullett and then detective Peter Lalor hatching a dastardly plot to undermine their enemy Overland by leaking to wireless station 3AW information that he was to head-off on a taxpayer funded management course in Fontainebleau (Fontainebleaugate).

Overland, then deputy commissioner, didn’t like the sound of this plot and told Linnell to keen an ear peeled for any damaging announcements on 3AW.

He has also said he wanted to head-off a “collateral attack” on the murder investigation, of which he was part.

The Australian has been bashing into our skulls that by doing this Overland unravelled the secret investigation into Lalor’s suspected part in a murder and also breached the Telecommunications (Interception and Access) Act.

imageLinnell told his mate and mentor, and another Overland enemy, then assistant commissioner Noel Ashby about the Fontainebleau (pic) tip-off.

Ashby was made aware by Linnell that Mullett’s phone may be bugged. Within 48-hours the news had apparently trickled downstream to Lalor, who must have worked out that his phone was, in copper parlance, “off”.

Hedley Thomas’ initial story about this appeared on June 9. The key charge was in his first paragraph:

“Victoria’s police chief commissioner Simon Overland divulged secret intelligence from a phone tap, unwittingly triggering the collapse of a murder investigation because he wanted to avoid media scrutiny of his proposed attendance at a taxpayer-funded management course in France.”

That is the unequivocal assertion, repeated ad nauseum by the paper: Overland, in breach of the interception law, is responsible for the collapse of a murder investigation.

There has also been much accompanying breast-beating and frou-frou from the Murdoch broadsheet: The Age missed the real story; Fairfax and ABC journalists mistakenly believe they are siding with the “angels” in the Victorian police; the injunction proceedings the newspaper took against the OPI have nothing to do with this story; this attack on Overland is not a campaign.

imageOf course. Of course.

Terry O’Gorman, prez of the Civil Liberties Council, was quoted calling for an “urgent investigation” into whether the Office of Police Integrity has been covering up for Overland (pic). Peter Faris agreed. So too Mark Le Grand, a former prosecutor and crime commission identity.

Criminal barrister Phillip Priest QC, who represented Mr Ashby in the OPI hearings, told the paper that Overland’s explanation was “quite unconvincing.”

Never far behind with an opinion was the Australian Lawyers Alliance director Greg Barns who announced that he also thought the case was “worthy of a thorough examination”.

On at least two occasions the paper modestly described Thomas’ probe as “forensic”. It was a word Phillip Priest picked up and played back to readers on Wednesday (June 16).

After trying to sort the braggadocios from the “facts” all that can be said is that as a forensic exercise it has some loose ends.

Certainly Phillip Priest, who has given supportive quotes to the paper, doesn’t state Overland wrecked Brairs. On June 16 he was careful to make it clear that Overland “may have” derailed the Briars investigation and that the link was a “possibility”.

No one else quoted by the paper on this story asserts that Overland’s actions brought operation Briars to its knees.

The reason is there is not enough evidence at this stage to support such an assertion.

imageThe paper has not delved sufficiently into other possibilities.

We know that Linnell showed Ashby (seen here) details of the Briars’ operation on his computer. Overland did not instruct him to do this.

The commissioner did admit on 3AW last week that his action sparked a chain of events. But that is quite different from saying that chain of events led to the collapse of the operation.

The original journalistic authority on this episode is The Age’s Melissa Fyfe, who has written dispassionately about these events.

Her analysis is that according to the evidence given to the OPI “the investigation was probably already fatally wounded”.

About two months before Overland talked to Linnell Age reporter Nick McKenzie already knew about operation Briars, the identity of the main witness and the police who were involved.

On June 26, Rod Wilson, the manager of the Briars’ taskforce, knew that at least two people of interest were aware of the investigation. They were another person of interest Peter Alexander and former policeman David (Docker) Waters.

imageIt would not be unreasonable to suggest that if a journalist, as well as investigative targets, knew about this then Lalor himself was likely to have been aware of the secret operation before the Overland-Linnell-Ashby-Mullett chain of events.

Melissa Fyfe (snap) put it this way:

“Given that Waters knew in June [2007], it is likely that he told Lalor and he would have at least suspected that his phone was tapped.”

Luke Cornelius, the then head of police ethical standards, complained about early breaches of security:

“The thing that sticks in my craw is that it looks like the breach – if that can be established – the breach of confidentiality occurred very early on in the piece.”

This was supported by OPI investigator Sharon Kerrison who listened to thousands of Ashby’s and Mullett’s phone calls and numerous conversations of Lalor’s. In response to the issue about an early breach of security she said: “Yeah, it did [happen].”

All of this is on the record, but has been studiously underplayed or ignored by The Australian. The paper has hung it’s hat on Overland’s alleged misdeed.

This is not to say that Overland can be described as lilly-white. What can be said with much more certainty is that the newspaper has failed to “forensically” pursue alternative causes for the collapse of operation Briars.

The acres of newsprint devoted to repetition of the central thesis smacks of desperation, even preciousness.

imageHedley Thomas (pic) has said the story will run and run. It won’t if he can’t get his hands on more hard facts.

This may explain the paper’s demand that the Office of Police Integrity release its record of interview with Overland.

It hopes this will shed light on the police commissioner’s claim that a “collateral attack” by the targets of the murder investigation was the basis of his use of the intercepted intelligence.

That may still not prove that Overland destroyed the operation, but, you know, journalists live in hope.

At this stage The Australian’s story is about a possibility this is not yet a fact.

Key articles

Heldley Thomas’ first article on the case against Overland

Hedley Thomas’s feature, How Overland dodged a bullet

Melissa Fyfe from The Sunday Age, September 13, 2009

Melissa Fyfe The Sunday Age, June 13, 2010 and SMH June 15, 2010