On Friday, in one of the most extraordinary editorials ever seen in Australian journalism, the Herald Sun claimed in a straight-faced manner that it had not run a “vendetta” to get rid of former Victoria Police chief commissioner Simon Overland.
The riposte came after Thursday’s swingeing Office of Police Integrity report documenting repeated high-level collusion between the paper and dumped Peter Ryan adviser Tristan Weston, which the OPI set out in a helpful timeline.
Weston, working beautifully in “off the record” whispers mode, had been central to at least seven stories planted in the paper to destabilise Overland and pave the way for his assistant Sir Ken Jones to climb to the top of the VicPol power structure. But according to the Herald Sun‘s leader writer, the paper had acted as a mere receptacle — there was no overt agenda to do Jones and Weston’s bidding.
“If anything has been proved by the bugged telephone conversations of a disgraced government adviser, it’s that the Herald Sun is innocent of any vendetta to bring down then chief commissioner Simon Overland,” it noted, under the Orwellian headline: “Hunt for truth not a campaign”.
There was a curious spin on the damning report’s contents: “But it’s no surprise to us that the report by the Office of Police Integrity into the activities of Tristan Weston finds this newspaper and its journalists were pursuing issues involving police transparency and public safety.”
In his interview with the OPI, Weston claimed the Herald Sun‘s investigations reporter, Carly Crawford, had told him there was a “prevailing view at the Herald Sun that Mr Overland was either corrupt or inept or a combination of both”.
Understandably anxious to retain her reputation as a fair and balanced scribe, Crawford rejected that interpretation in her interview, however she did concede “that she might have allowed Mr Weston to form impressions along those lines so that he would be more willing to share information with her”.
In the editorial, the Herald Sun insisted that it had never formed a view and was merely reporting the facts: “It was never the view of this newspaper that Mr Overland was corrupt. Nor is it now. It was more the view of Mr Weston, who was a policeman as well as an adviser.”
Now it should be noted that two shameless beat-ups Weston tried to flick Crawford — a conspiracy between Overland and deputy Ombudsman John Taylor and another attacking an OPI staff member — never appeared. But does the central allegation stack-up? How did the Herald Sun go about covering the ructions in the Victoria Police’s top brass?
Weston was appointed on March 8. Crikey has conducted an extensive survey, not just of the stories specifically mentioned in the OPI report but the phalanx of other yarns that appeared on a daily basis between March and the aftermath of Overland’s inevitable resignation on June 16.
We counted 89 articles — including 15 front pages — that were critical of the chief commissioner. By contrast — except in tangential stories about “police command” — not one story could be found that cast a negative light on the paper’s charge Sir Ken Jones. Some celebrated policing generally but on the key leadership issue there was rarely any equivocation.
At the outset, between March 27 and April 7, you get a sense of the paper’s usual concerns — a lack of police on the street and issues with lenient sentencing.
But on April 13 the floodgates opened, with Overland apparently having “ignored” legal advice not to issue a “show cause” notice to a policeman who sent p-rnographic emails and later committed suicide. The story was based on a rumour that, according to the OPI, there was “no truth” to:
That was followed up the next day under the headline “Suicide cop feared sack” based on information the paper “believed”:
The very next day, in yet another front-page splash, former Victoria Police media chief Geoff Wilkinson reported an IT bungle had permitted convicted criminals to commit murder because the parole board had not been informed about previous offences committed by parolees. “How many people must die before this problem is solved?”, the paper editorialised. It left it to readers to dream up a remedy.
After a follow-up reporting a sputtering apology on April 20, it was open slather on April 21, with “government patience running out” with Overland and a strap-line and screaming front page “Chief in the gun”:
In an editorial — “Tough at the top for Chief” — the paper gravely noted there was “growing concern within Government circles about the performance of the Chief Commissioner”. It even included a helpful sidebar explaining “why the pressure is growing on Simon Overland”. Strangely, the half-a-million circulation Herald Sun — that had devoted three front pages to bagging Overland in the previous four days — was not included in the list:
The next day, a new strapline appeared — “warning to Overland” — with an op-ed from Wilkinson headlined “Clinging on for dear life” next to a picture of Overland’s face cracking up. Wilkinson noted sagely that the “media — as usual — is only the messenger”:
The results of a rigorous online survey — “should Ken Jones replace Simon Overland as top cop?” — showed 79% of readers backing Sir Ken. On April 24, The Sunday Herald Sun, in a short report from Jon Kaila citing senior sources, said that “patience was running out” with Overland and that he had “signed his own death warrant”:
On April 25, the paper reported was “More heat on the beat” (detailing police complaints), on the 26th that there was “No top cop deal — Sir Ken“, and the 28th there was “Fear on the streets” (a leaked report had revealed a rise in assaults). Interestingly, it was left to a regular Herald Sun columnist, Jeff Kennett, to call the paper on its extraordinary brow beating, writing on April 29 of its (and 3AW mornings host Neil Mitchell’s) “concerted campaign to have him removed from office”:
But the next day, determined not to let Kennett have the last word, the Herald Sun shot back with an incredulous editorial, saying it had “never called for Simon Overland’s removal”. It was, said the paper, “just democracy at work”. On the same say, with the police media unit desperate to contain the fallout, a sit-down interview with Overland and Patrick Carlyon ran under the headline: “Yes, I’ve made some mistakes”. But the temporary (and heavily qualified) détente didn’t last long. On the Monday, Overland was being told (by police minister Peter Ryan, not the Herald Sun of course) to “stop preening and start policing”:
Interestingly, that story ran right next to seemingly unrelated yarn on Police Association pay negotiations — the connection between the two would later be made explicit in the OPI’s report detailing a “deal” for the union to keep quiet on pay negotiations in exchange for Ryan’s elevation of Jones. Ryan, the paper editorialised, “had drawn a new line in the sand”.
The next day the paper revealed that Jones was leaving the force following negotiations over his purported chop out as the head of the Independent Broad-based Commission against Corruption. But the apparent withdrawal of Sir Ken as a contender failed to stop the rot. On May 5, Mark Buttler reported on a “payroll bonanza“, name-checked by the OPI as being at least partly informed by Weston:
The next day, Stephen Drill, reporting from London, offered up an explanation for the resignation, quoting a friend who reckoned “outside forces” had got to Sir Ken. But history was speeding up: dismayed by the discord and leaks, Overland had told Sir Ken on the Friday to leave his office immediately on gardening leave. Cue this front page on the Saturday:
Inside the paper, subheads called on Baillieu “to clean up after this messy axing”. Victoria, in a piece informed by Weston, had now entered a period of “unprecedented crisis”. The editorial, “This shambles cannot go on”, was explicit: “Yesterday’s extraordinary decision to give Sir Ken his marching orders can only undermine public confidence in Victoria Police. The Premier needs to quickly step in and resolve this matter.”
It was left to the Herald Sun‘s Sunday sister to stick the knife in. The classic “embattled” adjective was attached to Overland’s name, on the front page no less. “Chief Commissioner Simon Overland’s job hangs by a thread after a dramatic face-off with Premier Ted Baillieu,” it calmly reported.
Inside, the paper went to town over four more pages, with the old chestnut “besieged” getting a run as “hundreds of rank-and-file officers” planned “sickies” in a “blue mutiny” to “undermine Mr Overland’s authority”. The editorial, “Top cop chaos must be resolved”, called for Overland to do the graceful thing and resign. It’s worth quoting:
“Mr Overland is, in theory, independent of government. But the reality is, if the Premier chose to publicly withdraw his support for Mr Overland, the top cop would be finished. Faced with the choice between sparking a constitutional showdown or walking away, hopefully Mr Overland would see reason.”
On the Monday, it was poll time again — “Who would you prefer as Chief Commissioner?”, the tabloid innocently mused, next to a Weston-inspired piece explaining that the “impasse” has reached “flashpoint”:
Then, 24-hours later, it was time for another blatant front-page crack with the subtle splash directed at Baillieu: “Clean up this mess”. Overland’s future was “in limbo” and a double-page spread on page 4 and 5 explained why “time’s up for dysfunctional police command”. Next to an op-ed from its Fairfax brother-in-arms Neil Mitchell, the paper laid out its specific reasons why the “Police farce must end now”:
The next day senior editors changed tack completely, splashing with a bizarre 40-year-old story on a traffic accident involving deputy commissioner Kieran Walshe in which Walshe’s passenger was tragically killed. The sympathetic piece seemed to be puffing up Walshe as a leader in waiting, not that the paper let on:
Inside the book came the sucker punch — an “online poll” conducted by the not-biased-at-all Police Association had revealed that “90%” of officers had “expressed no confidence in Simon Overland”:
By Friday the 13th, the paper coyly noted the again “besieged” Overland’s claim that he was “no lame duck” next to an online poll strongly suggesting he was. Again it was left to Jeff Kennett to expose the truth in the opinion pages — the Herald Sun had been running a deliberate “campaign”, “the consistency of which I have rarely seen”.
It wasn’t long before Kennett was shouted down — this time in the May 16 opinion pages that featured a dual assault from associate editor Alan Howe and union head Greg Davies. On May 18, it was Weston’s time to shine once again with Overland nefariously seeking to “expand his powers” in a “Top cop power grab”:
On the 23rd, Police were accused of going soft on drug traffickers by paring back sniffer dogs. The accompanying editorial specifically linked the Ombudsman investigation in to Overland’s purported manipulation of pre-election crime stats with reduction in dogs representing an “odd set of priorities”.
Weston popped up again via Carly Crawford the next day in a story, “Holster snag in firearm rollout”. But the renewed stats offensive was just heating up. On May 26, a “new scandal” emerged over “how police fudge numbers to make you feel safer” — police had reported percentages as a proportion of population, rather than the raw numbers:
Public confidence in the Victoria Police, had “taken a hit”, the paper’s editorial stated, with Overland “under intense personal pressure”. It went to town — with perhaps its most famous front page — the very next day, mocking Overland for his admission that he had “failed stats”. But it was worse than that — Overland had apparently tried to “censor criticism”:
The editorial? Overland was now in a “dark place”, with an adjacent Geoff Wilkinson op-ed describing the revelations as the “most serious challenge to Simon Overland’s credibility” thus far. Readers were unleashed to call for an immediate sacking, while cartoonist Mark Knight shifted into mocking mode:
By this stage, just 20 days out from his inevitable resignation and with at least four separate “scandals” burbling away in the background, the momentum had become irresistible. On Saturday June 4, in what would amount to its biggest salvo to date, the paper revealed that the OPI had “bugged Ryan’s office, by which they meant Weston’s mobile phone. A breakout box, “Overland’s journey to crisis”, reproduced earlier front pages to explain the police chief’s demise.
The editorial, “Take charge Mr Premier“, made the intended target clear. “The dangerous cross-currents running through these agencies” had “one common factor, the embattled Chief Commissioner Simon Overland”.
The next day, the Sunday ran with another apparent Weston plant — the story that Sir Ken had met with Baillieu CoS Michael Kapel but that Peter Ryan was not happy because he’d been left out of the loop. A double-page inside spread contained a pointer to an editorial stating plainly that the “genuine crisis for the government” would, over coming weeks, “test” the “Premier’s leadership”. (UPDATE: Sunday Herald Sun reporter James Campbell has told Crikey that Weston was not his source. The OPI says Weston’s involvement in a chronological list of stories that includes this one is “probable“).
The countdown to judgement day had begun. The Kapel meeting ran on facing inside pages for another two days. And on June 8, the paper inadvertently revealed where it stood in an explainer titled “how the two sides line up”. In the Overland corner, OPI deputy director Paul Jevtovic, OPI director Michael Strong and Peter Ryan. And in Sir Ken’s corner, Ombudsman George Brouwer, Greg Davies, Michael Kapel, Tristan Weston (his face blacked out as a “government whistleblower”) and Ted Baillieu. Four Herald Sun pages were planted next to Sir Ken’s head explaining how the paper had “covered” the story:
Weston and Crawford teamed up again on June 9, with a story suggesting Sir Ken would soon ask police command to review the interview process that landed Overland with the top job. The next day, Weston’s identity was revealed after he was sacked from the Victoria Police for misconduct:
On June 11, Crawford was back to report that Sir Ken was “threatened” by an anonymous person after damaging police statistics were released in February. On June 12, again on the front page, James Campbell reported in the Sunday Herald Sun that Parliamentary Secretary and close Weston confident Bill Tilley was threatening to cross the floor over the fiasco. Baillieu, an editorial deigned, was now on “thin ice”:
The following day Tilley had been joined by “a growing group of MPs”. However, only Bernie Finn was named. On Wednesday, Lib MPs were “demanding answers”. And by the Friday? Well we all know the end game, the ostensible trigger point being the release of the Ombudsman’s report into police statistics:
Over eight inside pages, the paper revelled in its own role, reproducing Knight’s cartoon and plucking out six of its own splashes. The only dissenting voice, Kennett, weighed in in an opinion special, highlighting once again the “campaign that has been run against him by the media”.
Last week’s OPI’s report recommended that if a federal government media campaign proceeds, then the media campaign against former Chief Commissioner Overland “deserves consideration”. It also highlights a number of other stories planted by Weston in The Age and The Australian. But with the Herald Sun explicitly denying it had ever campaigned for Overland’s removal, it would seem especially prudent for Messrs Finkelstein and Ricketson to closely examine its role.