Hedley Thomas responds to Margaret Simons’ story Vendetta journalism? The murky story behind The Oz, the OPI and Overland published in yesterday’s edition:


Your reporting today is significantly and factually and demonstrably wrong and I seek your urgent advice on how you are going to correct it and apologise. In the meantime, I request that you immediately remove your piece from the website, and that Crikey sends out an email that it is being reviewed because of concerns over its facts.

I am not saying this lightly — you have made easily established factual errors.

I cannot change your opinions — and I accept that you are perfectly entitled to them — but the facts speak for themselves and they require urgent rectification because they suggest that I am being slippery with the truth as part of an ugly and dishonest agenda.

That is grossly unfair and a slur on me and my professionalism. Any examination of what you have reported would show that you have overlooked obvious facts to write something that I feel is malicious. This is disappointing on both a personal and professional level.

I’ll set out your obvious significant errors here. Because of your errors, you cannot support your claims including that “the final result is something warped and dangerous in journalism”. I am very upset about this Margaret and I believe that after you have reviewed the very basic mistakes you have made you should apologise publicly and withdraw your claims.

It is not fair, whether in comment or reporting, if it is based on an entirely false set of premises.

1. You say:

The first thing is that there is nothing new here. As Thomas himself points in the story (if you burrow into it) all this has been written before at the time of the OPI investigation into Operation Briars. Melissa Fyfe of The Age was writing about it last year. There is nothing in Thomas’s story that Fyfe did not write. The Australian’s case rests on the assertion that the story was underplayed.

Factual position: You don’t have to “burrow into it”. Unusually, the feature article on Wednesday — How Overland dodged a bullet — leads off with an account of The Age’s story by Melissa Fyfe.

What the feature reports, critically, is that The Age “missed” the key angle in the affidavit — the motivation of Mr Overland.

Margaret, you have reported “there is nothing new here … there is nothing in Thomas’s story that Fyfe did not write”. That is completely wrong in fact. Melissa’s article is readily available. Mine is readily available.

Please show me where Melissa reports that Simon Overland took the action that he did — to media-manage a threatened story about himself from going on 3AW. You will not find it in her stories, because she did not report it. The Age will not try to claim that she reported this, because she didn’t.

Please show me where any media has written the angle about Mr Overland wanting to media-manage the 3AW Fontainebleau leak, which is the new angle in The Australian.

Your false reporting requires correction and retraction.

As I reported in that feature, “For reasons that are inexplicable, The Age’s article omitted the most extraordinary facts that were in Overland’s affidavit”.

2. You say: But the way Thomas writes the story, key pieces of information have gone missing. For example, the fact that Linnell already knew the details of Operation Briars before Overland approached him with the concerns over the French management course issue.

Factual position: This is false Margaret. This is the paragraph from the feature on Wednesday that you have overlooked, or chosen to disregard to support the proposition that you are making.

Linnell was already aware of the objectives of Operation Briars because he was a member of an advisory group, and he was preparing advice on a media strategy for when the operation went public.

Margaret, you can see from the preceding paragraphs in the feature — headlined “How Overland dodged a bullet” — that the paragraph I have inserted above is in its proper context, and it is at the time of the disclosure from Simon Overland to Linnell. How can you support your claim that this key piece of information — that Linnell already knew the details of Operation Briars — has “gone missing”?

Your statement of fact is wrong and it is damaging because you are suggesting that it is a deliberate omission, which would be highly unprofessional and unethical. It requires apology and clarification please, urgently.

3. You say of Ashby and Mullett: “They are giving him (Hedley), and he is accepting, a heavily skewed account.”

Margaret, it is extremely damaging to me that you report that I am accepting only what they say. The evidence — and we are talking this week about Simon Overland’s own evidence in his affidavit — speaks for itself. Has he skewed his evidence that he disclosed this?

I cannot understand, particularly given your background in Queensland, why you would be so willingly accepting of the official line here, given that you do not appear to be across the actual evidence.

4. Your point about Ashby and Linnell sitting down and looking at the screen, etc. To be honest, I’m not sure what point you’re trying to make. This occurs after the Fontainebleau rumour has come back to Linnell via Overland’s request. What are you suggesting?

5. You say it is wrong to suggest that Overland’s disclosure led to the murder investigation collapsing. Margaret, you need to read the OPI’s report / findings and evidence because the chain of events is clear. The OPI found that Lalor was warned to be careful by Rix, who was told to issue the warning by Mullett, who was warned of this by Ashby, who had received a warning from Linnell, who was concerned about Mullett’s phone being off as a result of the disclosure by Overland.

The chain was started by Overland — he conceded it himself on radio yesterday: Overland to Linnell to Ashby to Mullett to Rix to Lalor. Your assertion is wrong and you are contradicted by the OPI report.

6. The selective quoting, in your grossly inaccurate article that tries to take me to task on the basis that I am selectively using information, reflects poorly on your professionalism.

Here is another example – in your article, you say that my colleague Cameron Stewart’s previous depiction of Mullett as anti-reformist and so on is accurate, and you go on to say that it is a depiction that I have conveniently left out. I agree it is accurate. You are mistaken when you say: ‘But now that balanced view of Mullett is missing from The Australian’s reporting’.

Here is what I reported about Mullett in the feature, ‘Tough Mullett Takes Aim’ (link here).

Direct Extract from my piece on May 8 2010:

Mullett had become an increasingly difficult key stakeholder for the three critical points in a triangular relationship. As a relentless union boss he kept demanding more from the Brumby government. Mullett railed publicly against the reform agenda of Nixon. And Mullett ridiculed the police watchdog, the OPI, newly created as a safeguard against police corruption.

Many police respected and supported him. They had achieved remarkable windfalls attributed to strong advocacy by the former noted detective, who had two valour awards and a reputation as a fierce catcher of criminals. But to the government, Nixon and the OPI, Mullett was a destabilising and uncontrollable menace. This trinity would be better off without the antagonistic bomb-thrower.

Margaret, when you have not understood or even read the contemporary articles that are freely available on The Australian’s web site, which you are determined to critique, how can we have confidence that you understand the underpinning evidence that runs to hundreds of pages from 2007  and in the years since?



Hedley Thomas
National Chief Correspondent
The Australian & The Weekend Australian

Margaret Simons responds today:

Hedley Thomas asks that I show him where the media had previously covered the angle that Overland was trying to head off negative publicity about his overseas trip. That’s not hard to do.

Here it is — a story by The Age’s Melissa Fyfe published in September last year, and containing the following paragraphs:

“In his affidavit, Mr Overland says Briars head investigator Rod Wilson called him in August 2007 to say he ‘just picked up over the line’ Mr Mullett and Mr Lalor talking about a French executive development course Mr Overland was considering taking.

“Mr Wilson told Mr Overland that Mr Mullett and Mr Lalor were thinking of leaking this to the media.

“Mr Overland says in his affidavit he went to police media unit head Stephen Linnell and told him he had a call from Mr Wilson and ‘I understand Mullett and Lalor are talking about this. I understand they’re going to run it through 3AW, so it’s going to be a rumour file story. You need to watch it.’ He said he did not tell Mr Linnell the information was from a phone intercept.

“The Telecommunications (Interception and Access) Act sets out strict conditions about the use of material collected in phone taps. The material must be used only for the purposes of the investigation. Contravention of the act carries a penalty of up to two years’ jail.

“One senior barrister who has seen Mr Overland’s affidavit, and is familiar with the act, said the authorised use of phone intercept material did not cover media management.

“And Melbourne barrister David Galbally, QC, said: ‘I can’t see under any stretch of the imagination how this can be an authorised use under the act’.”

It is clear that months ago, Fyfe had already published the substance of what The Australian still considers front page news. The Australian is running old news. Its case for running it again now rests on the claim that it has been underplayed.

Thomas’ other allegation of inaccuracy concerns my assertion that information is “missing” from his report.

Some important contextual material is indeed not in his report. The fact that Linnell showed Ashby the terms of reference for Operation Briars is not there, although this is surely the context in which the import of Overland’s actions is properly understood.

It is true that Hedley did, in his feature but not in his news story, say that Linnell already knew the details of Operation Briars. To that extent, Thomas is correct and the word “missing” in my article is too strong. I should have said buried, underplayed or not given its proper emphasis.

My story made it clear that Overland did something questionable, and that I think we would be better off it had been more publicly and fully investigated, not least so it could not now be used to undermine him.  But it should also be put in its correct context. Overland  was talking to Linnell: someone who already knew details of Operation Briars, had been thoroughly briefed on details, and whom he believed he could trust.

Linnell’s actions in telling all these details to Ashby were the key event. That was the moment at which details of the Operation were given to someone who was not authorised to know about it.

As my story made clear, this is not to say that Overland is in the clear. It is to put his actions in perspective.

As for the rest, what Thomas describes as inaccuracies are really matters of opinion and perspective. I stand by what I said. His stories and mine are on the public record. Readers can make up their own minds.

Peter Fray

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