The Victorian Ombudsman has found that Police Commissioner Simon Overland was solely responsible for the release of assault statistics he knew were bodgie just before the Victorian election. He acted against advice from his media advisor, and he should have known the information would be used politically. Victorian Premier Ted Baillieu confirmed Overland had resigned this morning.
The Ombudsman stops just short of saying that Overland’s decision was politically motivated. To paraphrase his report, Overland’s actions are found to have been stupid, and to have let down both the public and serving police. But the Ombudsman does not call him corrupt.
Overland excuses himself by saying that he was caught between releasing the data after it had “settled” but during the caretaker period, or rushing it out. Brouwer quotes him as saying:
“We’re in a bit of a Catch 22 situation: if I release the data in caretaker mode, I can be accused of being politically motivated; if I didn’t release the data in the caretaker mode, I can be accused of being politically motivated …”
“I appreciated the political sensitivity of the release of quarterly crime statistics at this time … Relying on unsettled data without appropriate qualification was a mistake, but there is no basis to suggest it was conscious manipulation.”
The report casts grave doubt on Overland’s wisdom and judgement.
There is no more important issue in policing than being, and being seen to be, independent of politics and the government of the day. I could witter on at great length about Queensland in the 80s, police states, and so on and so forth. Ombudsman George Brouwer’s straight talking report can be read in full here.
Yet if the blame lands on Overland alone, then the point of the Ombudsman’s report will have been missed.
The root cause of the problem is more than twenty years old. As anyone who has been reporting crime in Victoria over that time period knows, Victorian police statistics have always been bodgie, and there have been repeated recommendations from various bodies for urgent action dating back 20 years, yet little has been done.
If previous recommendations for an independent crime statistics body and updated databases had been followed, the statistics would be verified properly before release, and that release would occur on a rigid timetable beyond political manipulation.
In other words, the present imbroglio could not have happened. Governments and police managements dating back to the days of John Cain and Police Minister Steve Crabb must share the responsibility for the truly awful position in which Overland, the Victoria Police and the Victorian community now find themselves in.
Brouwer makes just two recommendations, which are supported by Overland and the Victoria Police. First, the ancient and clunky LEAP database must be addressed as a matter of urgency, and with it the inefficiencies in recording crime. Second, Brouwer repeats his earlier recommendation that an independent body be set up to manage, collate and disseminate crime statistics.
So this is more complicated, and more important, than the continuing battle of personalities and factions within the police force.
There are other, deeper issues here that deserve an airing, particularly since this is merely one of a number of key reports that are to be aired over the next few months, on the growing crisis around law enforcement in Victoria.
And one of the issues that needs airing is the compromised and complicated role of the media.
The problem Victoria faces at this time of crisis in policing is that none of the regulatory agencies have unblemished records, and the relations between them are nothing short of byzantine. Hold that thought while I introduce another.
It is also the case that there has been so much leaking, and so much politicking between some media outlets and the police, that almost nobody in the media reporting on these matters can do with an entirely open approach.
They have all taken leaks from players in the factional wars, and must therefore protect their sources.
And since the Office of Police Integrity has decided to take a strong role in investigating leaks, that sets up a natural antagonistic relationship between reporters and the OPI.
I should declare my own position here. I have in the past been extremely critical of a campaign being waged by The Australian against Simon Overland and the Office of Police Integrity. The Australian’s reporting relied heavily on people who can at best be described as interested, and malevolent, sources.
The Australian’s campaign also followed Overland criticising that paper over reporter Cameron Stewart’s scoop on Operation Neath, and a Federal Court battle in which the Oz tried to prevent the release of an OPI report critical of its conduct.
Meanwhile, the man accused of being Stewart’s source on Operation Neath, former Victoria Police Detective Senior Constable Simon Artz, is facing charges. The case against him begins in the Melbourne Magistrates Court next week.
Getting an idea now of just how complicated this issue of leaking can be?
Is the OPI wrong to be taking such a bolshie attitude to leaks, bugging phones and so forth? That depends on whether you see the leaks as the effluvia of personality conflict, or as part of a serious and possibly corruptly motivated attempt to undermine an honest (if flawed) police commissioner, involving not only senior police but also political advisers.
The OPI and Overland seem to tend to the latter view. If you share that perspective, then the use of phone bugs and the like may well be justified.
But if you are reporter who has taken the leak, then you can only condemn the attempt to find your sources.
One person’s brave whistleblower is another’s dubiously motivated criminal leaker.
Brouwer’s report into the police statistics issue puts the context succinctly:
“This matter came to light as a result of a leaked Victoria Police intelligence brief to the Neil Mitchell program on radio 3AW (Melbourne) on 28 February 2011…This is not the only occasion during my investigation that material from Victoria Police has been leaked….One only has to read the newspapers to see that it is a regular occurrence for confidential Victoria Police information to be leaked to the media. Sometimes this may be for personal reasons including payback and for others it may be for altruistic reasons such as revealing the facts surrounding a police activity. Although I am not investigating the leaks of the intelligence brief, I am concerned about the culture and propensity for this to occur. In this case, the misleading use of the crime data may have motivated the leaks. However, given the availability of the Whistleblowers Protection Act 2001 (the Act), it would be desirable for internal witnesses to provide such material in a lawful manner, as provided under the Act..”
That is a criticism of those acting against Overland, even as Overland himself cops a slug.
And the same issue has clearly caused some tensions between Brouwer’s office and the Office of Police Integrity. At the same time that Brouwer was investigating whether crime stats had been falsified, the OPI was investigating the leak of the intelligence brief.
Brouwer declares that he asked for that investigation to be held off until he had finished his work. The reason is obvious. Brouwer was acting on information provided under the Whistleblowers’ Act — and we all know the person making the complaint is believed to have been Assistant commissioner Sir Ken Jones, Overland’s nemesis.
Yet if the leak came from the same source, then the OPI’s action could be seen as, to quote Brouwer, “as detrimental action against the whistleblower”.
It is all horribly complicated.
The best summary I have seen of the police background is this weekend article by John Silvester in The Age. And it is a measure of how muddy the waters have become, how high the suspicion on both sides of the fence, that the paper felt it necessary to run as the last sentence of Silvester’s report:
“Neither Simon Overland nor Sir Ken Jones co-operated with this report.”
And there are now so many leaks, and so many journalists who have obligations and complicated relationships to their sources, that the issue of right and wrong is very hard to unravel.
In some cases, media outlets have effectively declared themselves on one side or the other in the factional war. The Australian, for example. But even those less inclined to take sides are horribly enmeshed in the complications.
I have never seen such a strong case for a broad ranging inquiry with public hearings to clear the air. And it needs to be a Royal Commission, not just a hearing by one of the existing, entangled, agencies.
The question is whether the media could report such a thing with clean hands, so tangled has the web become. And the awareness of the flaws in the media, the experience of being burned in the past, is one of the things that is preventing public hearings from taking place.
Catch 22, indeed. Funny, if not so serious.