It was panic stations at the Southbank offices of the Herald Sun yesterday when its front page Brendan Fevola exclusive was torpedoed by the cops just hours after the little paper appeared on the streets.

Fevola, the top-selling tabloid screamed, was in deep trouble after he allegedly “publicly exposed” himself to an unnamed woman at a Brisbane park. But the reports were flatly denied by the Lions star, who said the yarn was “complete bullsh-t”. “Nah, that’s not true mate, I hope no one writes that because it didn’t happen,” The Queensland Police didn’t seem too interested, and the details were murky.

Still, that didn’t dissuade the Hun‘s crack scribes, who seemed desperate to introduce an Official Police Angle. “Fev Charge”, the paper duly thundered in about 180-point type, which casual readers might deduce was related to the previous day’s allegations. In fact, they referred to 12-month-old events at the AFL Brownlow Medal count — events that had remained dormant for months.

(One of Crikey‘s favourite journalism tactics is when someone reports an event has been “referred to police”, which usually involves the journo ringing up the police media unit to tell them about their amazing exclusive).

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In a sequence of events familiar to observers of Melbourne’s commercial media circle jerk, talkback radio went into meltdown.

The sting went like this. On Wednesday night, just hours before the paper’s deadline, the Herald Sun phoned Victoria Police spokeswoman Karla Dennis, who issued the following statement: “A 29-year-old Queensland man is yet to be charged over an incident in Melbourne in September last year.” Asked whether the man would be charged, she said: “that’s the intention”. Hardly conclusive enough to hang a splash off, you’d think, especially when there had been no recent murmurings that the charges were still live. Further inquiries would have surely revealed that a one-year statute of limitations — leaving police with just 11 days to act — meant that Fevola was firmly off the cops’ radar.

Then there was this mysterious sentence: “The Herald Sun believes police had been intending to charge Fevola for many months, either by contacting him in Queensland or issuing it on one of his footballing trips to Melbourne.” Given that Fevola has travelled to Victoria for three games this year and multiple media appearances, including this heavily promoted gig on The Footy Show on August 20, you could safely deduce the force’s top brass hadn’t really been trying.

All it took was a quick “review” of the case the next morning to reveal that, in fact, there was no “charge” and none would be forthcoming, leaving Fevola examining his own legal options. In a sop to the paper, which never likes to admit to its own stuff-ups, the police said a sergeant “responsible” would be “counselled” for his tardiness in acting on the drunkenness charge.

VicPol communications manager Michelle Walsh spelled it out: “The information provided to the Herald Sun Wednesday night about our intention to charge was done so in good faith and was based on the information obtained from the investigator … however, the police member’s Superintendent reviewed the case yesterday morning after being alerted to the length of time the investigation had taken and made a decision to take no further action.”

Completely unperturbed, the paper was back on the front foot today, running a piece “Overland demands explanation” (with a sub-head “The Let-Off”). Red-faced, it had demanded an explanation from Victoria’s top cop, who was apparently “disappointed” the matter hadn’t been “sorted out”. An accompanying editorial described the events as a “farce”.

A farce, it seems, mostly of the Herald Sun‘s making.

Peter Fray

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