When there are corruption problems in a society the media is inevitably part of the problem, as well as potentially part of the solution. The Corruption and Crime Commission report released last week makes clear that in Western Australia the media has apparently benefited from Brian Burke’s charm and networking abilities just as much as the politicians, public servants and others presently in the gun.
The CCC report that has caused the downfall of Director General of Health, Dr Neale Fong, makes it clear that a primary reason for his troubles was a conversation he had with Burke prompted by a journalist on the West Australian newspaper, Mark Drummond.
Drummond apparently had a very fruitful relationship with Burke. The report also reveals some of Burke’s apparent dealings with the editor of The West, Paul Armstrong.
Read the whole report here. The most relevant pages are 58-70.
On 19 May 2006, when Fong was under intense media pressure, Burke rang him to discuss his dealings with the West, Armstrong and Drummond:
BURKE: Yeah, it’s Brian can you talk?
FONG: Ah, yeah, hi Brian.
BURKE: Yeah, just very quickly uhm that was a really deft move to give that thing to err Mark Drummond about Subiaco.
BURKE: He’s really grateful and err that’s exactly the sort of thing that I think will help err and I think it’s probably about time to go and see Armstrong if you wanted to or haven’t done it.
FONG: Yeah, no, okay I’m in Sydney err at the moment but I’ve what next week give him a call and catch up with him.
BURKE: Yeah well things have settled down a fair bit and for example I think they are going to try start treating stories maybe a little bit differently but once you get a couple of err sort of days of clear air.
BURKE: Then I just think that err you’re straight in to see him mate.
BURKE: Or maybe in coordination, if they use that stuff next Thursday morning.
BURKE: I’ll make sure Drummond tells him how they got it, so maybe the Monday or Tuesday after that.
On 10 August 2006, Drummond was recorded ringing Burke to check out a story that health official Michael Moodie was being investigated. Drummond’s relationship with Burke was clearly both strong and close.
DRUMMOND: Now, listen, have you got any contacts in the Health Department?
DRUMMOND: Okay, there’s a story … seems to be, there’s a lot of …
BURKE: About Michael Moodie?
BURKE: What are you hearing?
DRUMMOND: Well, we’re hearing that it’s a triple-C investigation that he was just, that he was frog-marched out, uh, and they confiscated computers and all sorts of stuff. Uhm, and there’s a suspicion that here might be some private triple-C hearings going on at the moment in relation to it.
Burke kept Drummond on the line and used his mobile telephone to call Fong. The resulting transcript is an absolute classic…
BURKE: Yeah, Neale?
FONG: Yes, Brian.
BURKE: Yeah, it’s Brian, can you talk?
FONG: Yes, go ahead.
BURKE: Yeah, I just want the capacity, if it’s appropriate, to be able to jump on something. Uhm, uh, Michael Moodie.
BURKE: Uhm, I’m just coming under some pressure, uh, about what happened or what the score is there. Uh, and I’ll just tell you straight up what I’ve heard, that there’s a triple-C inquiry and that uh, he sort of was frog-marched out of the office, they’ve confiscated computers and things, and they’re having private inquiries. Now, none of that can be reported, I’ve pointed out to people who’ve asked me, but uhm, I just wonder if there’s what, something I can say to them.
FONG: Uhm, that, uh, that’s about all you can say, Brian. Yeah.
BURKE: Right, okay.
FONG: … I mean it’s out of …, it’s completely out of my hands.
BURKE: no, I understand that.
FONG: Yeah, I mean we haven’t, we haven’t even said that publicly yet.
BURKE: No, no. No, well, yeah, alright, so
FONG: But … that’s, that’s, that’s the facts, yeah.
BURKE: Yeah, I understand that. So, I, I’ll just say that, that uh, uh, as far as I can find out, there’s no, there’s nothing can be said, and if people can confirm things that, you know, are able to be written, you see, with the triple-C, Neale, you can’t write things, even if you know them.
BURKE: Yeah. Alright.
FONG: Well I can’t, I can’t, I can’t even say whether they’re investigating or not investigating.
BURKE: No, well that’s…
FONG: I can tell you they are, but…
BURKE: well, you’re not even telling me that.
BURKE: What you’re saying to me is that you’re unable to say anything.
FONG: No, that’s correct.
BURKE: Okay, well that’s what you’ve told me.
BURKE: Okay, good onya.
FONG: Thanks mate. Cheers
BURKE: … see ya. Ta Ta
Burke then hung up the call to Fong and picked the phone to Drummond and told him: “Yeah, you’re on the money.”
The next day Drummond had a scoop about the investigation into Moodie. This call, with its evidence of close contact between Fong and Burke, was a key reason for Fong’s being in trouble.
The CCC recorded Burke telling Fong to talk to Armstrong to try and negate negative publicity. Meanwhile Armstrong had apparently offered Burke a column. In a conversation on 26 April 2006, Burke told Fong that the West Australian’s criticism of him and the Health Department was a reaction to Government criticism of the paper, and “It’s not about you. It’s not personal.” He continues:
BURKE: And that’s what, this young bloke Armstrong, I don’t know if I told you that he asked me to come to lunch with him and he asked me to write a column for his paper
FONG: Hm hm
BURKE: and I sat with him for about 2 hours. He’s not a bad young boy
FONG: I know I’ve had…
BURKE: But he’s got no balance.
BURKE: He thinks he’s running a tabloid newspaper in a competitive market where he’s got two or three other papers publishing each morning.
Journalists use all kinds of contacts. What reporter could resist a contact as well connected as Burke? But surely it is, at least, uncomfortable for journalists to use someone like Burke in this way when they decry other public figures for doing the same. Fake moral outrage is a tedious aspect of the journalistic grind. Hypocrisy is its handmaiden.
We saw this same pathology many years ago in another one newspaper town, Brisbane, when the Fitzgerald inquiry revealed the Courier-Mail to be part of the networks of information sharing and favours that supported a corrupt system – as well as the publisher of the Phil Dickie stories that helped bring that system down.
These are not simple issues, but in Perth the West Australian is clearly a player amongst the networks of power, not only a reporter on them. It inevitably shares the pathologies.
Yesterday Crikey tried to call Mark Drummond for comment on this story, but he had not returned our call by deadline this morning.