The Cole inquiry into the AWB Iraqi kickbacks scandal was extended yesterday by another three months, due to delays caused by the AWB’s legal battle to try to avoid disclosing key documents. At the same time, however, The Age was casting doubt on whether the scandal ever happened at all.

In today’s paper’s morning edition, there was a brief front page story on the shooting of the Iraqi trade minister’s bodyguard, credited to Ross Colvin of Reuters. It concluded, uncontroversially, with the line “officials have been working to win back a place in the Iraqi wheat market after the AWB kickbacks scandal.”

But by 9.21am, when a revised story by Jano Gibson appeared on The Agewebsite, a note of doubt had crept in. It included the following paragraph: “A 2005 UN report alleged AWB was one of more than 2,000 firms that had paid kickbacks worth $US1.8 billion ($A2.4 billion) to Saddam Hussein’s government through the UN-managed ‘oil-for-food’ account. If proved, AWB would have broken UN sanctions against Iraq.”

“If proved”? Surely it’s a bit late to be coming over all agnostic about whether kickbacks were paid at all. But the same words were repeated when a new version was published at 1.05pm.

Only at 2.29pm, in a story credited just to AAP, did it become a more definite statement: “… the AWB scandal which saw the grain exporter pay almost $300 million in kickbacks to the government of dictator Saddam Hussein.” No explanation for why The Age had entertained doubt about the issue in the first place.

Peter Fray

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