The Sydney Morning Herald has a history of not printing replies from the victims of its columnists’ attacks. It seems that its provocative columnists are a protected species.

Paul Sheehan’s error riddled spray at Four Corners and me in particular, could not have been given more prominence. At first the SMH said it would publish a reply, but when Four Corners submitted it, the SMH said that it only had room for a letter.

In other words, we could say Sheehan got it wrong, but not have the space to show readers how and why. Here is the full piece the SMH refused to publish:

Opinion Piece for the SMH

Recent media and political comment on the Patten Inquiry finding that Phuong Ngo’s guilty verdict should stand has criticised last year’s Four Corners report into the conviction of Ngo for the murder of Labor MP John Newman. (Paul Sheehan: “Four Corners but One Sided“). This criticism betrays a fundamental misunderstanding of the nature and practice of investigative journalism. Four Corners believes the issues raised in the report deserved the light of public scrutiny. This decision was not taken lightly. It was made in the public interest.

2GB’s Ray Hadley declared Four Corners “had a glass of chardonnay somewhere one night and said oh my dear gracious me this is a great travesty and we should represent this man”. In fact the program was produced after exhaustive and sceptical research by two experienced ABC journalists and at every stage it was supervised by senior ABC editorial management in the closest consultation with the ABC’s legal advisors. This is the proper function and practice of enquiring journalism.

The Chief Justice of NSW, the Hon James Spigelman, separately formed the view that there should be a judicial inquiry into the conviction, which he ordered. That inquiry was based on a submission made by ANU law academic Hugh Selby. The Four Corners program was not, as Sheehan and Hadley claim, based on Selby’s submission. Selby did not write the submission until after the ABC program was broadcast. The Selby submission and the Four Corners program are consequently very different. Several key issues raised by Four Corners were not dealt with in the recent inquiry. Four Corners was not a party to the inquiry.

The case against Ngo has always been that he killed John Newman to get Newman’s seat in the NSW parliament. The judge who sentenced Ngo to life imprisonment said his motive was “naked political ambition and impatience.”

Four Corners raised questions about the finding on motive. Former Federal MP Ted Grace told the program Ngo wanted an upper house seat and was never interested in the lower house where Newman sat. Ngo had given that evidence himself. Ngo also gave evidence (denied by John Della Bosca) that Della Bosca told him before Newman’s murder that the ALP planned to disendorse Newman before the next election.

Ted Grace wasn’t called to give evidence at the current inquiry. But NSW MP Reba Meagher was. Meagher told the inquiry that John Della Bosca had offered her John Newman’s seat just hours before Newman was murdered. Reba Meagher’s evidence supported Ngo’s account. During the inquiry, Counsel Assisting Mr Patten interviewed John Della Bosca privately. He decided that “little purpose would be served by calling him to give evidence”.

Other questions raised by Four Corners came from interviews with two co accused who had never before spoken publicly. David Dinh, charged with being the shooter and Quang Dao, charged with driving the getaway car were both found not guilty by the jury. Quang Dao told Four Corners he didn’t believe Ngo could have been at the murder scene in a white car as alleged because Dao had been elsewhere in the white car himself. Dao also told Four Corners he’d been pressured to give evidence against Ngo by the NSW Crime Commission and had refused to do so despite the offer of an indemnity. Mr Patten did not agree with Dao. But neither Quang Dao nor David Dinh was asked to give evidence to the inquiry.

Four Corners also raised questions about the credibility of the two most central crown witnesses, T and N, who can’t be named because both are in witness protection. T, who was another originally charged with Newman’s murder, had been in jail for seventeen months and, by his own account, was suicidal when he agreed to give evidence against Ngo to the NSW Crime Commission in return for indemnity. N, who also gave indemnified evidence, had said he knew nothing about the murder until an interview conducted without a lawyer by the NSW Crime Commission. Four Corners reported that in a later case, T and N contradicted some of their own evidence in the Ngo case and T admitted to tailoring his evidence to what he was told by the Crime Commission about N’s evidence.

Mr Patten found the evidence of T and N was not “interdependent”. But neither T nor N was called to give evidence at the recent inquiry.

Four Corners reported concerns that the defence team had not been given a copy of an interview with another man said to have confessed to the murder. The Patten inquiry found this was so, and that it was “an inadvertent and innocent” error by Detective Inspector (as he then was) Nick Kaldas. Ngo’s lawyers told Four Corners the missing interview might have led to further inquiries and made a difference to the jury. Mr Patten disagreed with that. The man questioned in the inadvertently missing interview wasn’t called to the recent inquiry.

Four Corners asked Assistant Commissioner Kaldas to appear on the program but he declined. He provided a written statement that was included in the program.

The Patten inquiry did examine other matters raised by Four Corners. These included evidence from a corrosion expert that corrosion on a gun found in a river and said to be the murder weapon wasn’t “consistent” with any he had seen occur naturally. At the inquiry he agreed with another expert that it was not possible to reliably estimate how long the gun had been in the water.

Four Corners reported that much of the evidence against Ngo was circumstantial. This included mobile phone records which according to the Crown put Ngo “near” Voyager Point, where the gun was found. Four Corners interviewed a telecommunications expert who raised concerns that the phone evidence made “too much” of “too little” and was “potentially misleading”.

Mr Patten agreed that phone records could do little, if anything, in “pinpointing the whereabouts of a person at a particular time”. But he found that the phone records didn’t play an ‘unwarranted’ part in the conviction.

Australians are fortunate to have a legal system based on the presumption of innocence. And a tradition of rigorous investigative journalism. These are strengths. The suggestion Four Corners broadcast “innuendo, omission, supposition and false accusation” is wrong. Four Corners aired the program without bias and in the public interest.

Debbie Whitmont, Reporter
Four Corners

Sue Spencer, Executive Producer
Four Corners

ABC TV

29 April 2009

Peter Fray

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