For the past two days The Age has splashed across its front page “revelations” by a former senior police officer who is now on trial over allegations that he leaked details of an investigation. Noel Ashby, a former Deputy Commissioner of Police is alleging that he was tipped off by Tim Pallas, who was then Roads Minister in the Brumby government, about the fact that Paul Mullett, who headed the police union, was being investigated. Pallas vehemently denies that the conversation took place. Predictably, the Opposition is calling for an investigation.

The Age says it has obtained a document prepared by Mullett in the course of his defence to a series of criminal charges he is facing and that the allegation against Pallas is contained in that document. Noel Ashby, Paul Mullett,

But before Ashby’s version of events, or Pallas’ for that matter, is accepted as gospel, it is important to consider the context in which this allegation is being made. And therein lies the problem. We do not know how this document came into existence and for what purpose, other than that it was prepared as part of Ashby’s defence against criminal charges, according to The Age. Importantly, it would appear to not be a statutory declaration or affidavit, and therefore Ashby has not had to swear an oath or take an affirmation as to the truth of its contents.

The Age’s story, like any media story on the contents of secret or leaked documents, is unsatisfactory in one material sense — it gives the document, which includes apparently a detailed account of Ashby’s relationship with Pallas, a sense of importance and gravitas it may or may not deserve. The document, according to The Age, was prepared by Ashby for his defence.

So what value does it really have? It may be it has material inconsistencies in it, and is full of hearsay, and is self-serving and misleading. On the other hand it could be a 100 percent accurate account of reality. The point is that we have no idea what store we can place in the contents of this document has because it has not been subjected to cross-examination or rigorous probing in the courtroom.

But in the meantime, this document, because it contains explosive allegations, and is portrayed as secret or highly sensitive, is given a status by the media that it may or may not truly deserve. The contents of documents that the media paint as secret and explosive have an unfortunate habit of becoming accepted as truthful without further scrutiny.

And what of calls for an independent investigation made by the media and opposition political parties yesterday and this morning? To do to what precisely? According to Ashby’s version of the truth, he and Pallas had a conversation in private, with no recording or notes. It is anyone’s guess as to what really happened and who said what if anything — no inquiry will ever fairly determine the truth in those circumstances.

The Ashby saga might make for good copy, but perhaps that is its only value.

Peter Fray

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