AWB
is giving a good impression of a company that has completely
surrendered the PR battle in order to fight a more pressing war: the
threat of criminal charges.

The tortured decision of the wheat
exporter to consider making a full public apology, working up several
drafts but then abandoning it was one thing. Its efforts now to keep
the apology secret, running off to the Federal Court
to fight Terence Cole, smacks of something more serious. The AWB that
didn’t co-operate with UN, government or perhaps its own board’s
inquiries now isn’t co-operating with Cole – and with good reason.

For
a start, the draft apology that AWB wants to keep secret contrasts very
sharply with the nonsense it told the ASX when the Iraq kickbacks and
dodgy Tigris commission deal were bubbling behind the closed doors of
board and management. That will be one area of potential charges
relating to a market that might have been misinformed.

But
there’s more serious stuff than that at stake. It’s tempting to see
parallels between AWB and James Hardie, but AWB directors and officers
could be having their minds focused by potential criminal charges
should Cole find they breached Australian laws on bribery and
corruption. Whatever the ethics of the James Hardie mob, they were
never facing that.

There was a case of court reporting at the AFR a
quarter century ago that became legend among the troops. A reporter
filed a paragraph that began: “The defendant, looking guilty, said….”
The sub-editors caught the mistake but the phrase entered the language
and can now be revived: AWB, looking guilty, claims legal privilege.

Peter Fray

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