Last Wednesday, Defence Minister Stephen Smith said he wanted the conviction, based on a guilty plea, of the young woman at the centre of the ADFA scandal on unrelated issues quashed. He said at a press conference at Parliament:

…despite the fact that I’m told that the girl — the young woman, agreed to the proceedings and pleaded guilty, it seems to me in the scale of complete insensitivity to complete stupidity that this matter was allowed to proceed. And I’ve asked the Chief of the Defence Force to urgently advise me as to whether it is possible and open for this guilty plea and conviction to be quashed.

While that seemed clear, a journalist at the press conference got confused. “Delaying the hearing — today’s hearing is one thing, but why have the allegations quashed? What reason is there for that?” they asked. Smith corrected the journalist, and explained that he wanted her guilty plea quashed.

There’s a world of difference between suggesting that accepting the woman’s guilty plea at the same time as she was the centre of a massive and growing Defence scandal was poor timing and should be reconsidered, and demanding that the charges against her be dropped, an entirely inappropriate intervention by a Minister or, for that matter, anyone else not involved in the case.

So everyone was clear, it was the conviction, not the charges against the young woman concerned, that Smith wanted quashed.

AAP was clear. The SMH was clear. The News Ltd tabloids were clear. Sky News was clear. Michelle Grattan was clear. The ABC was clear. The only outlet that wasn’t clear was The Australian. Ben Packham reported that Smith wanted the charges themselves dropped. That meshed neatly with the complaint of Neil James of the Australia Defence Association, given prominent coverage by The Australian, about Smith interfering in military justice. The coverage included a piece Packham and James Massola that repeated the error about dropping charges.

That was doubtless an honest mistake by the journalists concerned. But the error was repeated, too, by Dennis Shanahan, who this week has offered a series of “exclusive” insider scoops on the affair, none of which have stood up to scrutiny. On Monday Shanahan claimed there was “now a ‘Mexican stand-off’ between the minister and the CDF over the fate of Commodore Kafer” (why it was a Mexican stand-off, rather than an ordinary stand-off, isn’t clear). Andrew Bolt promptly used the piece to criticise Smith.

Except, Smith announced on Monday afternoon that Defence chiefs had agreed over the weekend that Kafer was to take leave from Sunday. A funny sort of “stand-off” to be reporting on Monday.

Yesterday Shanahan followed up with another “scoop” about claims that Angus Houston had threatened to resign. The claim had been comprehensively denied by both Smith and Houston.

Shanahan followed up with another piece today that had little new but compounded the errors. He repeated the claim about Houston threatening to quit, carefully suggesting the denial had come from Smith’s office only, when his own report the previous day stated that both Smith and Houston regarded the claim as “entirely baseless, without foundation, and not worthy of the speculation.” Then he went south of the border again. “There have been no quibbles on talk of a Mexican stand-off between Smith and Houston.”

Well, no quibbles except from Shanahan himself, who four paragraphs below states, presumably in an attempt to explain why his Monday “exclusive” was wrong, that “a compromise was reached” on Kafer.

So, which was it, a stand-off or a compromise? Or was it, in reality, neither?

And the further you go into Shanahan’s piece today, the weirder it gets. He again repeats the claim that Smith wants the charges dropped. Then, four paragraphs below that, he specifically quotes Smith saying he wants the young woman’s conviction quashed. Does anyone bother checking Shanahan’s work even for internal consistency?

Peter Fray

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