“There must have been a moment, at the beginning, where we could have said — no. But, somehow we missed it. Well, we’ll know better next time.”

The lamentation from Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead comes to mind when reading recent coverage of the Haneef case.

“Political embarrassment or administrative convenience,” the Australian’s weekend editorial explained, “should not be sufficient reason to keep Dr Haneef in detention while the flimsy charge against him was dealt with.”

Well and good. But let’s look back at the crucial week starting 16 July, when Haneef was granted bail – and then promptly detained under immigration laws.

Even as Hedley Thomas and other Australian reporters systemically demolished the government’s case, the Oz pundits universally backed Haneef’s treatment. Glenn Milne set the tone with “Liberty lobby again is all wrong” on 16 July.

“Ruddock is absolutely right,” he explained “[…] These laws are not only designed to catch and punish the ideological criminals who commit acts of terror. They are also designed to protect the community against those acts being carried out before they happen. […]” 

On 17 July, Andrew Fraser chimed in with “Magistrate has history of disagreements with police”, a nasty little article providing background on Jacqui Payne, the magistrate who granted bail to Haneef. She had, we learned, previously been described by the Police Union president Gary Wilkinson as “totally anti-police”. Not only that, she was married to Ivan Milat’s lawyer and had been active with the Aboriginal Legal Service, a group with “a history of political involvement”. 

Draw your own conclusions.

On 18 July, The Australian editorialist criticised the government’s handling of the case – but largely on the grounds that Andrews’ bungling allowed civil libertarians to get a hearing. “Without a speedy explanation by the Government of exactly why he must remain in custody, Dr Haneef will continue to be martyred by the same anti-Howard forces who managed to turn David Hicks from a confessed terror trainee into the focus of widespread, and politically costly, public sympathy.”

On 19 July, Greg Sheridan explained: “The Howard Government has behaved entirely reasonably in the case of Mohamed Haneef, the Brisbane doctor accused of helping terrorists.[…] The Australian Federal Police has acted efficiently and effectively. […] Andrews made the right decision.”

On 20 July, Dennis Shanahan agreed. The Oz’s strap for his article ran: Never mind the gibes of critics; our authorities are acting in good faith and in the public interest”.

And then, on 21 July, there was Paul Kelly.

Kelly denounced Haneef’s barrister, Stephen Keim, as “a part-time political operative, defiant in going to the media, seeking to sway public opinion” and explained that Julian Burnside’s comments on the case revealed “the depth of delusion and mad hubris beating at the heart of this legal culture… Australia’s anti-terror laws are now hostage to both executive incompetence and the political campaign against them waged by much of the legal profession.”

Three days later, with the government case in tatters, The Oz gave in.

“It was hard to see,” explained the editorial on that day, “how the Australian Federal Police and the Howard Government could have bungled the matter more comprehensively.” The lawyers that Kelly had described as “deluded” and “mad” were now praised for “doing their job, standing up for civil rights, the rule of law and their clients” (though the only person mentioned by name was uber-rightist Peter Faris).

Mind you, this didn’t mean a vindication for those who campaigned for Haneef. On the contrary, the editorialist cautioned: “If Labor wants to win, it must avoid wading into wedge politics. Rudd can see what lies ahead for the ALP if it strides into the Haneef mess. … There is nothing for the ALP to gain by entering into that territory, not when the whole thing looks so awful for the Coalition, and when the press is so ably protecting Dr Haneef’s civil rights.”

Get that? If it wasn’t wrong for lawyers to intervene in a political issue, well, it was wrong for politicians to involve themselves in a legal issue.

For sheer absurdism, Tom Stoppard has nothing on these people.