Frank Costigan is surely right in defending himself against attacks from the Packer family
and their friends. As a Royal Commissioner he was obliged to
investigate allegations when they arose. If all the Royal Commissioners
of the 80s had failed to investigate allegations against the rich and
powerful, then Australia would be a very different and very much worse
country than it is today.

If the Packer family really want a
target for their fury it should be the person who leaked the secret
material from the Costigan Royal Commission. Who was it? We will
probably never know.

For those under 40, it probably pays to recap the history. In 1984, journalist Brian Toohey published in The National Times
case summaries of the supposedly secret volume nine of the Costigan
Royal Commission’s final report, making allegations against a
businessman later identified as Packer. The stories ran and ran. They
included half-baked and wrong allegations, as well as some stuff about
which questions remain – such as the precise involvement of Packer in
Brian Ray’s tax avoidance schemes.

But
those volumes were secret for a good reason. They were untested
allegations. Toohey can hardly be blamed for publishing the leak – how
many journalists would not? The vigour with which some of the more
dubious stories were pursued is another matter. There was great enmity
between the National Times and Packer at the time.

Packer
sued Douglas Meagher QC for defamation over the leak. One Malcolm
Turnbull, then general counsel for Consolidated Press and now Federal
MP for Wentworth, was interviewed on the ABC’s AM program and
said he had “significant evidence” that Meagher leaked those documents.
However, there were never any particulars provided to the court.

Some
thought Packer was aiming at the wrong target, and the federal Attorney
General’s office would have been a better place to look for the leaker.
Later, Packer filed a notice of discontinuance of his action, but
Meagher had the proceedings dismissed on the grounds that they were not
really to do with defamation, but had the “ulterior and collateral
purpose of investigating the conduct of a Royal Commission”.

Douglas
Meagher QC, who was counsel assisting the Costigan Royal Commission,
said when contacted for comment yesterday “I finished that brief 21
years ago, and that is where it will stand”.

Malcolm Turnbull is travelling, and had not answered calls asking for comment by deadline.

Peter Fray

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