Saturday, August 30

This time, Mick Keelty must do the honourable thing and resign

This isn't some convicted, proven ruffian. This photo (published on the front page of The Sydney Morning Herald on July 19 last year, and reproduced a few days later in Grumpy Old Journo on July 24) shows the Indian doctor Mohamed Haneef being driven from the Brisbane watchhouse in a police vehicle. I wrote at the time that we should all find it deeply disturbing.

Just how disturbing, we learned yesterday. At 4.44pm, and no doubt hoping the strike-breakers shovelling US political copy into the SMH and the Melbourne Age would be too flat-strapped to notice, and that it would be too late for the evening TV news, the Australian Federal Police slipped out a statement which said:

The AFP has concluded its active inquiries, although some longstanding overseas inquiries are yet to be fully resolved. At the present time there is insufficient evidence to institute proceedings against Dr Haneef for any criminal offence.

Read that statement again. At the present time there is insufficient evidence. And yet, if it was just a matter of insufficient evidence, the AFP should not have concluded its active inquiries.

In other words, the AFP now concedes Dr Haneef is innocent – but still won't say it outright.

Back in March 2004, I felt a great deal of compassion for AFP Commissioner Mick Keelty – but I also believed a stronger man would have resigned at the time. I winced as I watched Prime Minister John Howard subject this decent man to the most public humiliation I have ever seen on television, worse than anything on Australian Idol or Big Brother.

Perhaps age and alcohol have damaged a few more brain synapses, but I seem to recall that our former Dear Leader read out a clarification of comments Keelty had made a few days earlier, while Keelty sat there, the TV camera focusing relentlessly on his abject misery.

You may remember what had happened. Keelty agreed to an in-studio interview by Jana Wendt on Channel Nine's Sunday program ahead of a week-long conference about terrorism with federal, state and overseas experts swapping ideas.

But four days before the interview, terrorists set off bombs on Madrid trains which killed 200 and injured 1500.

So it was a legitimate question from Jana Wendt: "Well, Commissioner, that brings me to the question that most Australians are asking themselves: could this happen here?"

Unprepared by spin doctors, Keelty gave an honest reply – a reply most Australians would have found moderate and reasonable:

Well, I think we've said all along this [battle against international terrorism] is an uphill battle. This is a marathon, not a sprint. The reality is, if this turns out to be Islamic extremists responsible for this bombing in Spain, it's more likely to be linked to the position that Spain and other allies [emphasis added] took on issues such as Iraq.

And I don't think anyone's been hiding the fact we do believe that ultimately one day - whether it be in one month's time, one year's time, or 10 years' time - something will happen. And no one can guarantee it won't. And I think there's a level of honesty that has to exist here in terms of what the problems are here, not only in Australia but in our region.

But on the threat level, the threat level here in Australia hasn't changed. It still remains at medium. It has been at medium for some time for an attack on Australians in Australia.

Yes, you and I might have found that a moderate and reasonable view. But Prime Minister John Howard saw the interview and went ballistic. He immediately rang his loyal chief of staff, Arthur Sinodinos.

Less than eight minutes after the interview ended, Sinodinos phoned Keelty in Nine's green room – the VIP lounge for interview guests – to communicate Howard's extreme displeasure.

Much of the information above comes from Alan Ramsay's column a few days later in the SMH. But if you would discount Ramsay as a Howard hater, let me quote another source, an edited extract from Anne Tiernan's book Power Without Responsibility, about the growing power of ministerial staffers to make public service heads defer to ministers' directives.

Under intense criticism from ministers and colleagues including chief of the defence force, general Peter Cosgrove, Keelty issued a statement clarifying his comments. Though the prime minister’s spokesman maintained that regular contact with the AFP was appropriate during a period of heightened security,” Sinodinos’s actions were seen as an attempt to intimidate and bully the commissioner, and an inappropriate intervention by a ministerial staffer.

There's a lot of claim and counterclaim about what happened as Howard and his staffers bullied Keelty into accepting the "clarification" which had been drawn up in Howard's office and presented to the AFP commissioner. But at that time, I felt Keelty would have won our admiration if he'd resigned and said why.

In the ensuing years, Keelty did a valuable job as he built relationships with the security forces in Indonesia and Southeast Asia. The worst blot on this record was tipping off Indonesian police to arrest a gang of drug mules who then faced the death penalty. He should have let them make the run, and grabbed them when they landed in Australia – a nation which does not support the death penalty, especially for stupid young Australians.

In May 2006, the Weekend Australian Magazine let Keelty tell of his anguish over the treatment he had received in March 2004 – and at the way defence force chief Peter Cosgrove had cut him dead from that point [Cosgrove was later to apologise].

If Keelty had resigned in March 2004 rather than accept his public humiliation, he would have left with his honour intact. Sadly, if he goes now – as he should – he will still be tainted by his complicity in deceit as bad as "children overboard" or "weapons of mass destruction".

We now know there never was a persuasive case that Haneef was involved in terrorist activities or knew of the Glasgow bomb plot.

Yet Keelty oversaw the expenditure of more than $8 million in the investigation. He let the AFP become part of a political agenda driven by John Howard, Phillip Ruddock and Kevin Andrews. He did so at a time when the British authorities had accepted Haneef's innocence, and when our security services like ASIO had already ruled out Haneef as a terrorist concern.

When he won office in 1996, one of Howard's first actions was to sack six public service department heads – a third of the departmental secretaries – in a sudden and brutal putsch.

Many of us saw it as an assault on the public service obligation to give "frank and fearless" advice to ministers, although some might argue it was to ensure the public service implemented the will of an elected government.

But a police commissioner is not just a public service head. He or she has an obligation greater than implementing government policy – an obligation to uphold the law without fear or favour.

When Howard bullied Keelty into a humiliating submission, and Keelty accepted it, they both destroyed something of value. In the wake of that destruction, perhaps it's understandable the participants saw nothing wrong with continuing to present Haneef as a terrorism threat.

At this point, let me slip in a plug for journalists. But for the doggedness of Hedley Thomas and other journalists, we may never have learned of the mendacity of Howard, Ruddock, Andrews and Keelty in the Haneef affair.

Let's thank also those newspapers which provided space and money to nail down these lies.

In particular The Australian, which noted in its Page One lead today that the AFP's confession came after it had tried for a week to get the AFP to say whether the Haneef investigation was still under way. You may also like to read the accompanying comment by the Oz's legal affairs editor, Chris Merritt.

We should also thank those lawyers who risked their professional careers to reveal the AFP's mendacity.

More than a year ago, my comments accepted the possibility that Haneef was guilty. But I still argued that he had a right to decent treatment, even though extraordinary measures might be warranted in the age of terrorism. Here's what I said:

Haneef may or may not have given support, or had some prior knowledge, of the attempted terrorist bombings in London and Glasgow.

A Brisbane magistrate found the case against him so weak she granted him bail, despite our anti-terrorism laws' removal of the presumption of innocence.

Immigration Minister Kevin Andrews immediately ordered Haneef's detention under his powers to lock up and deport undesirables.

Andrews said, and Australian Federal Police commissioner Mick Keelty backed him up, that he'd been shown secret files which justified his action.

Why weren't they put before the magistrate, even in chambers? Is it because magistrate Jacqui Payne is Aboriginal and has a reputation for requiring even the Queensland police to comply with the law? Perhaps the Feds thought they couldn't trust her – "not one of us".

As I keep saying, I may be a bit to the left, but I try to be fair. Reluctantly, I accept the need for some civil rights to be weakened as we protect ourselves against fanatics with murderous intent.

But when the authorities feel the need to detain or put on control orders those people who worry them, if they haven't been convicted let's accept a limited presumption of innocence. If we have to take them to detention, let's hire a limo to do it. Let's detain them in comfortable accommodation. A four-star hotel might be about right. And let them keep their shoes on.

Today, you can see what I was getting at.

Friday, August 22

When we're writing back-to-back, we're not saying it right

newspaper cutting

Caricature of blogger Ian SkinnerIs it only me – as pompous old gits say when they write Letters to the Editor – or do other readers find something irritating in the term “back-to-back”?

One expects it of sportswriters, of course. How often one sees a phrase like “the team won three premierships back-to-back”, conjuring up an image of the one in the middle spinning a pirouette to present a posterior to the next one along.

Usually it means successive. But whatever does it mean in the intro to this story in The Australian the other day? Probably the authors meant to say Obama and McCain took turns at answering questions from a hotshot evangelist. Or did they answer their interrogator by batting questions back at him?

It's only when you read the story to the eighth long, wordy paragraph you learn the Rev. Rick Warren conducted successive one-hour interviews, first with Obama while McCain and his staff blocked their ears, then with McCain, using the same set of questions. Why not just say so?

The Oz took the story from its new stablemate, The Wall Street Journal, acquired by Rupert Murdoch late last year. Like many quality newspapers in the US, the WSJ is so full of its own worthiness it bogs down in dreary writing.

That's one reason US newspaper readers are defecting to the internet at a far greater rate than those in Australia.

Thursday, August 7

Hey, I'm back – but look what I missed

Your grumpy old blogger hadn't intended to put so much time into the previous two posts, about the Myall Creek massacre and about the ABC's First Tuesday Book Club criticism of Demons At Dusk. But perhaps it's as well that I did.

If I hadn't been so focused on working up fair, balanced but robust commentaries in those two blog posts. I might have been tempted to wade into some issues that slipped past while my mind was elsewhere.

Just think of the hot water I would have found myself if I'd said I found something disturbing about a man who found Bill Henson's photographs of a young nude girl “revolting” – not as sick as someone who experienced a lascivious charge, of course, but a worry nonetheless.

And what if I'd been tempted to share my mirth at the most incredible diatribe I've read in an Australian newspaper – the Weekend Australian's editorial attacking the ABC and the Sydney Morning Herald for their coverage of the then upcoming World Youth Day and their reporting of the claims of a religious education teacher who fell to pieces after he had sex with a randy priest.

Funny, though, the Weekend Oz saw no need to mention that its owner, News Ltd, was a sponsor of World Youth Day.

Perhaps newspaper editorials should be signed. But whoever penned it, one wonders whether it was approved – or even instigated – by editor-in-chief Chris Mitchell, who made the Courier-Mail look so silly during his Brisbane sojourn when he exposed Manning Clark as a Soviet spy who'd been seen wearing the Order of Lenin.

I even felt a touch of mirth when a story in the Oz's Media section trotted out David Penberthy, editor of News Ltd's Daily Telegraph, to comment on responsible journalism (in fairness, Penberthy did disclose the WYD sponsorship).

Yes, it's a good thing I was too focused elsewhere. Now, have I told you about my experience trying to use the calculator on my mobile phone to work out the best value in two Woolworths' specials on tomato juice? No? Well, perhaps that's next. Do come back.