Michael Pascoe writes:

As the Wheatgate mud began to fly, it seemed BHP Billiton’s PR machine was caught flat-footed and wanting. There’s not a lot they could do about constant casual mistakes by journalists attributing Cole inquiry allegations about Tigris to BHP, but they didn’t help their lot by freezing up.

Now it looks like the spinners are back playing the game with two major articles effectively limiting the damage to one or two executives. The timing is exquisite as BHP types will finally front the inquiry this week to explain how the resources giant’s $5 million gift of wheat to Iraq morphed into an $8 million debt involving inflated wheat prices, dubious commissions and possible payoffs.

Jamie Freed in Saturday’s Smage zeroes in on well-connected Liberal and BHP factotum Tom Harley. It reads as a well-researched piece involving plenty of chasing of people who might have known something. Although the story pointedly says BHP would not allow the SMH to speak to Harley, I would think BHP spinners should be very happy with it.

The punchline is:

It’s understood Harley and Phil Aiken (BHP Petroleum CEO) have been the key BHP insiders targeted during the company’s independent investigation into its activities in Iraq, and are likely to be called as witnesses at the Cole inquiry.

As we remarked in Crikey at the time, it was amazing that an AWB executive who seemed to have lots of trouble remembering what he had or hadn’t read about his own business nonetheless was able to tell Terence Cole that Phil Aiken had assigned the BHP debt to Tigris – the company set up by two former BHP executives to do deals in Iraq.

Today Malcolm Maiden’s Smage column tackles the essential question of how the wheat “gift” became a debt – and seems to have a remarkably good understanding of what BHP’s internal inquiry into the matter has and hasn’t found.

Maiden focuses on the same two executives and concludes with the option that is just what BHP wants:

BHP’s own investigation has so far provided no clear insight into how the letter from Phil Aiken in 2000 could describe the 1996 shipment as a receivable. The Cole inquiry hasn’t found much either, although Stott told it he did not believe that when BHP accepted DFAT’s decision in 1996 that this “was a closed matter … I was told that BHP would pursue this”.

Both Phil Aiken and Tom Harley are expected to appear before the Cole inquiry this week. Critical questions are these: Is it right that the BHP shipment in 1996 was legal, and in effect, a donation? If so, how did it come to be described as a “receivable”? What information did Aiken rely on (remembering that he was not inside the oil and gas division in 1996), and who drafted the letter?

The answers may determine whether BHP itself is a major continuing focus of the inquiry as far as the 1996 deal and its aftermath are concerned, or whether individuals are.

Two articles, two different journalists, both pointing fingers at Harley with a question mark over Aiken but with room for the BHP executive director to unload.

And if the damage is contained to a couple of individuals, BHP will be happy indeed.

Peter Fray

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