A funny thing happened at the RACV Club in Melbourne yesterday.
I was midway through a robust and wide-ranging two-hour discussion with Chip Le Grand, The Australian’s former Melbourne bureau chief, when former Victorian Police Commission Simon Overland sat down by himself two tables away. Seeing as my wife, Paula Piccinini, sits on the board of a domestic violence agency with Barbara Overland, I popped over to say hello.
We had a quick discussion about the media inquiry and the fact that Michael Strong, the outgoing director of Victoria’s Office of Police Integrity, had formally requested Ray Finkelstein look at the circumstances of Overland’s departure after an extraordinary media campaign against him.
I wasn’t sure how friendly Overland would be after writing a story about him in June. It included the following comment:
“While The Australian‘s campaign, especially its dubious association with the discredited Noel Ashby and Paul Mullett, was contemptible, Overland’s refusal to answer questions from their journalists at press conferences was never a good look in the television age.”
When Le Grand also popped over to say hello to Overland yesterday, I didn’t realise that it was his question that the former police chief had refused to answer. No wonder it was only a fleeting exchange that lasted about 10 seconds before Le Grand retreated back to our table.
However, it did come as quite a surprise that Le Grand then went straight back to the office and produced this front-page story:
Freed of any constraints relating to his ongoing tenure as director of the OPI, Michael Strong went on Jon Faine’s program this morning and delivered one of the most compelling and powerful public demolitions of Australian editor-in-chief Chris Mitchell’s tactics you could ever hear (listen here). Strong claimed Le Grand and his boss were guilty of running a sustained campaign against his organisation under the cover of hard news:
“There’s a lot more to it than Chip Le Grand would have the public believe …
“And of course this is part of The Australian‘s continuing campaign against OPI about which you’ve spoken in the past and which has resulted in, among other things, 41 articles by Hedley Thomas who had never previously written an article about the OPI and who is the brother in law of Paul Whittaker about whom some embarrassing evidence emerged in the OPI investigation of the Operation Neath leak.”
Pressed by Faine on what he thought The Australian was up to, Strong was explicit, claiming that the paper was “running a campaign to discredit this organisation and doing so in sensationalist unbalanced articles almost on a daily basis given far more prominence than they deserve”.
But Chris Mitchell hit back this morning, telling Crikey that the OPI under Strong’s leadership was the “most corrupt organisation it has ever been my misfortune to be involved with”.
“I hope the new independent broad-based anti-corruption commission has a hard look at OPI and its J. Edgar Hoover techniques and I hope Michael Strong is brought to account for what he has done to honest police in Victoria in the name of protecting a paranoid police regime under Simon Overland,” he said.
“Faine should know better than to give this rogue such a platform. I urge Victoria’s media to revisit Hedley’s work on Operation Briars. I will be doing so.”
In his front-page splash, Le Grand wrote that the OPI strike rate “underscores frustration within legal circles at the organisation’s failure to carry out one of its founding functions: ensuring that police corruption and serious misconduct is detected, investigated and prevented”.
But Strong said there were other, more rigorous, measures from which the OPI’s success, and his three-year reign at its helm, should be judged:
“It’s a very perverse way to evaluate the work of this organisation over the last 7 years. Chip Le Grand has conveniently ignored statistics that were right in front of him about the number of complaints that OPI has assessed … 3500 in the last five years, 2500 Victoria Police internal investigation files reviewed, 27 parliamentary reports on a range of issues … more than 250 corruption prevention initiatives and so on.
“He’s presented a very unbalanced and in my view perverse evaluation of the work we do.”
Strong, a former County Court judge who will exit the OPI early next year, suggested his organisation compared favourably to other anti-corruption bodies including the NSW-based Independent Commission Against Corruption, Queensland’s Crime and Misconduct Commission and WA’s Crime and Corruption Commission. He said that much of the OPI’s evidence that it obtained coercively couldn’t be used against that person, effectively immunising them against criminal charges.
When asked by Faine about the old saying “never pick a fight with someone that buys ink by the barrel”, Strong said that former police chief Simon Overland “had said that and look what happened to him”.
He cited a letter, sent by Mitchell to the OPI in March last year, that said The Oz would use “every journalistic and legal measure available” to pursue the “outrageous fabrication” perpetuated by the two bodies in relation to its Neath scoop.
Can’t Mitchell, or his new boss Kim Williams, see that putting powerful people on the rack through a distorted and inaccurate public campaign is no longer effective in getting them to bend to your wishes?
As one powerful corporate and political figure observed after a recent public company AGM: “The forces lined up against Rupert Murdoch are just too great, and he is too old to resist them.”
So why would anyone loyal to Rupert make those forces ever angrier and more determined to finish him off when he is so vulnerable?
Overland is one such a force and his face brightened yesterday when I told him about a hugely damaging story about Rupert involving bugging which is set to break in the coming months. Watch this space.