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The World

Nov 17, 2011

Roebuck’s death: a good man, a bad man or something in between?

Peter Roebuck has died leaving more question marks than the most enthusiastic YouTube commenter, and given the closed nature of South African policing, straight answers may never be forthcoming, writes freelancer Geoff Lemon.

I was late to hear about Peter Roebuck’s death. Camping in a state forest near Narrandera, with New South Welsh clocks showing the early hours of Sunday, it was just one part of an outside world kept at bay. Come Monday evening, the news as fresh a shock as in any earlier iteration, I found myself tracing the story’s evolution back to its beginning.

The process has been desperately sad. As a fellow writer of sport, I held Roebuck above most others. As someone for whom cricket is about emotional resonance more than entertainment, Roebuck’s voice was part of my life, the soundscape of summer nostalgia as much as highway air past the car window or the shriek of seagulls.

At the same time, while bleakly, it has been instructive and fascinating to see how the various strands of media handle a case so complex and ambiguous. Roebuck has died leaving more question marks than the most enthusiastic YouTube commenter, and given the closed nature of South African policing, straight answers may never be forthcoming.

Reports through Sunday were brief, bare, and often wrong. Found dead in a hotel room. Fallen from a window. Police had spoken to him earlier that day. Were with him at the time. Visions of foul play circled thick and dark as evening bats.

On Monday came the obituaries. “Tragedy far greater than 47 all out has struck cricket, and this should be a Roebuck column. But it isn’t one, and can’t be one, and never will be one again, because the tragedy is Peter Roebuck. He is dead.” So wrote Greg Baum, in a front-page piece choked with emotion. Details were still hazy, but the final sentence of Baum’s quote was deemed the important part. Responses flowed accordingly — Neil Manthorpe, Vic Marks, Tim Lane all paid their respects.

As early as Monday night though, online reports were emerging, passed on in Tuesday’s papers. That Roebuck had been accused of sexual assault, that the visiting police were of the relevant ilk. That investigations were under way.

The eulogies, of course, have been heartfelt, mostly from colleagues and friends. In general coverage, though, the overwhelming sensation has been uneasiness, a media shifting awkwardly on its chair. As yet, they still don’t have a fix on this story. They want Roebuck to be a good man or a bad man. The prospect that someone might be both is too much to bear.

The stakes, given the conservative presentation of news, are high. No outlet wants to say nice things about someone who turns out to be bad, or ill about someone good. Early reports had more hedges than ever shared an advertising hoarding with Benson.

But ultimately, the lure of the lurid is strong. While Fairfax papers have stood by their man, others here and overseas have been sketching an unpleasant narrative, though one built sufficiently on insinuation and clever positioning that it can be backed away from at short notice.

Essentially, it is the suggestion of Roebuck as a long-term sexual exploiter of boys.

The main thing mentioned in each suggestive news piece, and embraced by vicious blogs as vindication, is the current accusation of assault. Apparently a reminder is due that allegations do not equal guilt, and that sexual impropriety is the easiest charge to make and the hardest to dispel. Just ask Anwar Ibrahim.

The accusation itself has been given little study. Various reports have it as an “attempted sexual assault”, a hazy concept if ever there were one. Attempting a nightclub kiss could be classed as such if the recipient were not amenable.

It is in keeping with the implied narrative that every report refers to the complainant specifically as a “young man”. The man was 26, not the youth implied. To suggest he lacked the capacity to deflect an advance is specious.

Then there’s the possibility of a set-up, which no report I’ve read has yet considered. There are two potential motivations. Sexual accusations are frequently used in blackmail, especially in poorer countries. A high-profile foreigner with a seemingly large supply of philanthropic dollars, Roebuck would have been an obvious target.

Or something bigger? Roebuck was the single most outspoken critic of Zimbabwean politics in the cricketing world. He knew a lot about the country, and castigated Zanu-PF politicians and Zimbabwe Cricket Board officials specifically and by name. Much of the diplomatic pressure on Zimbabwe comes from cricketing nations such as Australia and Britain, who are more often than others minded of its existence. Roebuck was a wicked acacia thorn in Mugabe’s side.

Trading on one infamous incident in Roebuck’s past, a sexual allegation would be a most effective means of discredit. That a Zimbabwean national should make the accusation within days of Roebuck’s arrival in Africa, after seeking him out online and arranging a hotel meeting, is worthy of note and investigation. Strange that no allegations were ever made in the many years Roebuck spent in Australia.

After the assault allegations, most reports have also touched on Roebuck’s charity house in Pietermaritzburg. Again, the emphasis is on age, citing “young men” and often “boys”. The “boys” in question are mostly in their mid-20s and going through university. The coaching of language gives a different impression.

Look, says the implication. Here is a young African man accusing Roebuck of assault. Here are other young African men under his care and control. Some of the internet’s fouler repositories have taken this to its furthest conclusion, painting Roebuck as a colonialist pervert creating stockpiles of the vulnerable to satisfy his rampant demand for flesh. They have even read sexual malice into some of his sponsored orphans calling him “dad”.

The suggestions are beyond obscene. Roebuck’s students past and present have greeted his death with shock and grief, and described him in glowing terms, as a generous man and a genuine father figure. Not one has suggested any impropriety on his part. Not one has been asked how they feel about his life’s best work being twisted into de facto evidence against him.

All this nudging, rustling, and whispering is essentially based on the one incident. In 1999, we’ve been told countless times in the past few days, Roebuck caned three white South African cricketers. This was well before his charity work started, when he was taking on aspiring players in England for a training regime.The cricketers are always described as “boys”, despite being 19, and perfectly old enough to have told him to go and jump if they had chosen. The only one contacted by the media this week said he bore Roebuck no ill will, and described him as “a brilliant mind”.

Yes, it’s an odd one, but the level of assumption is unsupportable. Every report has implied a sexual aspect to the caning, when Roebuck belonged to a generation that was routinely caned at school. Much has been made of the judge’s line about it being “done to satisfy some need in you”, without quoting the subsequent sentence in which he refers to establishing a position of power, not to getting one’s rocks off.

This doesn’t mean I’m here to make the case for caning. But presumptions about things that don’t involve you are easy to get wrong. The most prosaic intent can become sinister in the telling. In 2003, I was spotted breaking into a Carlton apartment and leaving with a bag of women’s underwear. As it happened, my girlfriend’s faulty front door latch sometimes needed to be popped with a credit card, and it was my turn to make the run to the laundromat. Cuff me.

Whatever happened in Roebuck’s case, the caning trial was an utter humiliation, and probably the lowest point of his life. He went to ground afterwards, and thought about staying down. Whether he did or didn’t have a case to answer in South Africa, it seems likely that his memory of that first case led to his fatal despair in contemplating fighting another.

It is a sad end. Alive, Roebuck could perhaps have cleared his name. Now, the investigation will likely trail off. Conjecture will continue. The nation’s news services will maintain their vacillation between respecting the revered writer and sniping at the potential villain. We probably won’t get an answer. Roebuck will neither become a comfortably good man nor an entirely bad one. Like the hypocritical mass of the rest of us, he’ll fall somewhere in between.

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63 thoughts on “Roebuck’s death: a good man, a bad man or something in between?

  1. SusieQ

    Having just read the article about the 26 year old in the online papers, this is a different take on things entirely and much welcome.
    Much more balanced than a dreadful effort by The Blot in yesterday’s Herald Sun, against which, interestingly, only 2 comments were published, although I’m sure there would have been a lot more.

  2. Jim Reiher

    This article is probably right… but I do wonder what we would be saying if it were an Australian Catholic priest on business in South Africa. If the evidence was identical and the circumstances the same, what would we be writing about a priest in this situation? How would we be talking about the 1990’s canning incident?

    Would we be as careful with the evidence? As keen to believe good, as quickly as many are to believe bad? There are some rotten apples in the Catholic Church, of course, and even though I am not a Catholic, I honestly believe that the overwhelming majority of their priests are good and caring people who dont do the wrong thing.

    But that said…. how would I approach this story if it were about a priest?

    We dont want to believe bad of a cricket sportswriter, but we love to believe evil of certain catagories of people in the community.

  3. Luke Smith

    Yes, Bolt was very careful to stick with the word ‘boys’ to describe the 19 year-olds who were caned by Roebuck. A new low, if that’s possible.

  4. Rourke

    Great analysis Geoff, completely agree. SusieQ: Bolt’s blog had over 100 comments on this article, don’t know why the article itself doesn’t show them. Quite a few were well-written demolitions of his premise, and he got some facts wrong (is that habitual now?)

  5. Charles Dodgson

    I knew Peter. We met through a mutual friend, here in Sydney, and I shared a couple of meals with him and a few coffees down at Bondi. We discussed politics, mostly, and some cricket. I used to work as a journalist and Peter would interrogate me about the detail of Indian telecommunications policy, or Chinese censorship. He was genuinely interested in all that the world had to offer. I have been grieving since I heard of his death. I have lost a friend and because, as Geoff so eloquently says, a connection to the “emotional resonance” of cricket in an Australian summer.

    Once, Peter and I walked along the promenade at Bondi discussing Zimbabwean politics. Peter was hoping that I might be able to use some of my journalist connections to have some more exposure of the Zanu-PF. Peter detailed some of the crimes he had witnessed. I know Peter had enemies in Zimbabwe.

    My feeling is that Peter has been murdered. I suspect that some of his enemies paid some money and eliminated an irritant.
    Of course, I have no proof and can never obtain proof. So I must suffer the laziness of the Australian media as they accept the police version of the events.

    Thank you Geoff, for writing the only decent report I have read since the death of my friend.

  6. bally

    Great article, thanks Geoff. Roebuck’s death is a reminder of many things, including the approximate nature of depression and its derivatives all around us. Of how fortunate we were to have his eloquent and insightful commentary on cricket and the game of life.

    I thought Andy Bull’s article in the Guardian was also appropriate to the man we must now remember rather than look forward to hearing and reading. In it, Roebuck’s wonderful Cricinfo article about Kumar Sangakkara and his fight to save Sri Lankan cricket, was quoted. The final paragraph of that piece might equally be applied to much of the media commentary since his death:

    “That is the crux of the matter. When cricket falls into the hands of the narrow-minded it withers. To prevent that it’s essential that men like Sangakkara speak out, and that governing bodies accept their responsibilities. So much has been accomplished. The Berlin Wall has fallen, apartheid is gone, the Arab uprising is underway, a Muslim has played for Australia, and a Tamil has taken 800 Test wickets for his beloved country. Just that there is a lot more to do. Cricket is connected with the world and ought not to pretend otherwise.”

    Likewise, when the media falls into the hands of the narrow-minded, we all wither.

    Vale Peter Roebuck, who was anything but narrow-minded. His readers’ and listeners’ lives have withered a little with his passing.

  7. Luke Smith

    Jim, your reference to priests is in light of child molestation, not sexual encounters with adult men. Surely the difference is very obvious. There’s no excuse for making this association.

  8. Geoff Lemon

    Thanks for that comment Charles – it always means a lot to know when a piece has made a difference to someone. In all the speculating, it’s far too easy to forget that people are real, and that many around them are affected.

    I too think the manner of his death is suspicious, but that suspicion was allayed in part by Jim Maxwell’s version of events. Maxwell was with Roebuck in his room just a couple of minutes before he died, and said that he was in a visibly distressed state. There were two police present, one of whom left the room with Maxwell. A minute later Roebuck had fallen. Given we can confirm there was only one policeman with him at the time, it seems unlikely that he would have been dispatched then. Or that he would even have been allowed to telephone Maxwell in the first place.

  9. liliwyt

    how would I approach this story if it were about a priest?

    Or a Muslim Imam?

    Or a Labor politician with a liking for strip clubs or gay bars?

    I take your point, though Jim. It shouldn’t be one rule for one group and another rule for another. All stories need to be told without innuendo and hearsay as a substitute for facts.

    Perhaps, rather than asking how we would react if it were a “favourite whipping post” story, we should be asking why are the dog whistles out for this particular story?

    And, if there is substance in the political innuendoes made in Charles’ comment and Geoff’s story (which could be argued are skating as close to the line as the sexual innuendoes), then I think the Australian media has a responsibility to make sure that story is told. With the facts. Not supposition.

  10. Ilona

    Jim, the Irish found that somewhere between 3 and 6 per cent of catholic priests in that country sexually abused children. A small minority, sure, but still a horrendously high figure. Your comparison is fallacious.

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