The Australian’s Premature Reporting on the Nsw Special Commission of Enquiry (or: Support for Peter Fox Needed Now)
May 8, 2014
At the end of the month, the NSW Special Commission of Enquiry is due to release its final report. The full title of the special commission of enquiry is the “Special Commission of Inquiry into matters relating to the Police investigation of certain child sexual abuse allegations in the Catholic Diocese of Maitland-Newcastle.”
Many people have latched on to what they see as the core issue at stake. At the core of the enquiry, for many people, is the existence of a ‘Catholic mafia’ within the ranks of the NSW police force. A Catholic mafia that, if it exists, is responsible for protecting accused Catholic clergy from investigations and convictions in NSW. A Catholic mafia, that, if it exists, represents a serious blight on the Australian system of justice. A Catholic mafia that, if it exists, needs to be rooted out quickly before more children are harmed by predators potentially protected at high levels of the NSW system of justice.
While the existence of a Catholic mafia within the ranks of the NSW police is indeed an allegation made by whistleblower police officer, Detective Chief Inspector Peter Fox, whose fearless stance sparked the NSW enquiry (and indeed gave the necessary impetus for establishment of the Australian Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse), and may be what most concerned people really want to know about, this is not in fact the focus of the NSW enquiry. Even if it should be.
The NSW enquiry established by former NSW Premier Barry O’Farrell and headed by Margaret Cunneen SC is very limited in its scope. It’s only charged with the ability to look at two matters:
“The circumstances in which Detective Chief Inspector Peter Fox was asked to cease investigating relevant matters and whether it was appropriate to do so; and
Whether, and the extent to which, officials of the Catholic Church facilitated, assisted, or co-operated with, Police investigations of relevant matters, including whether any investigation has been hindered or obstructed by, amongst other things, the failure to report alleged criminal offences, the discouraging of witnesses to come forward, the alerting of alleged offenders to possible police actions, or the destruction of evidence.”
Note the use of the term “relevant matters.” which are said to be:
“… any matter relating directly or indirectly to alleged child sexual abuse involving Father Denis McAlinden or Father James Fletcher, including the responses to such allegations by officials of the Catholic Church (and whether or not the matter involved, or is alleged to have involved, criminal conduct).”
Yesterday, two rather surprising articles in The Australian were published, which indicated that, assuming what’s written can be believed, someone in The Australian has access to information that no-one else yet has. According to The Australian [which is owned by Rupert Murdoch, who was made a Knight Commander of St Gregory by the Catholic Church in 1998]:
“While the inquiry’s staff declined to comment and The Australian has not seen the inquiry’s report, it is not expected to support Mr Fox’s claim.”
“Its report is not expected to make any significant adverse findings against those senior police officers directly involved in the investigation, codenamed Strike Force Lantle.”
There are a number of elements of The Australian’s reporting that give rise to several questions for The Australian and its crime reporter, Dan Box:
What’s the reason for the headline “Policeman Peter Fox’s cover-up claims rejected”?
That’s a pretty sweeping statement. How does it tally with what Box himself says in the article:
“Its report is not expected to make any significant adverse findings against those senior police officers directly involved in the investigation, codenamed Strike Force Lantle.” [Ed. I’ve added bold font to the word ‘significant’ – it is not used in Box’s article].
Isn’t there a slight contradiction between the headline and the article here? The title implies a quite sweeping rejection of Peter Fox’s evidence, but what’s said later in Box’s article and quoted here is somewhat different. Also, the word ‘significant’ used in the 15th paragraph of Box’s article is quite likely to be missed by the casual newspaper reader who doesn’t get past the article’s title and perhaps the first couple of paragraphs of the article. Even if Box has been forced to run with the article title used, wouldn’t it have been fairer to Peter Fox to mention significant adverse findings earlier on in the piece?
What is so relevant about Peter Fox’s lack of involvement in Strike Force Lantle and why has The Australian mentioned it in the way it has?
In one of Box’ articles yesterday, he says:
“Fox told Lateline he was forced to stand down from the police investigation into the alleged cover-up of serial child abuse committed by Catholic priest Denis McAlinden.”
“Giving evidence to the state inquiry, he goes further, saying a “Catholic mafia” exists within the police and the McAlinden investigation, codenamed Strike Force Lantle, was “a sham … set up to fail”.”
“The inquiry is not expected to support either of these claims. The evidence before it shows Fox was, in fact, never part of the Lantle investigation, partly because of concerns among superior officers about his relationship with the press.”
As Box himself should know full well, Peter Fox is not on record claiming to be part of the Lantle investigation. As Box himself reported in The Australian on 7 May, 2013:
“Giving evidence yesterday, Mr Fox said he was never, in fact, part of this formal NSW Police investigation, established in 2010 under the name Strike Force Lantle.”
“Instead, Mr Fox said he had pursued his own private inquiry, working closely with local Fairfax journalist Joanne McCarthy.”
“When Mr Fox did tell his bosses about his private inquiry — after the establishment of Strike Force Lantle — he was told not to pursue the matter as the investigation was now being handled by police from a different local area command.”
How then is it relevant in any way that Peter Fox “was, in fact, never part of the Lantle investigation?” What conclusions are readers intended to draw, if any, from what is said in The Australian and the order in which it’s been said? Some, uninformed, readers, might infer from the article that Mr. Fox lied about his involvement in Strike Force Lantle, when in fact he does not appear to have done anything of the sort. They may then form the conclusion that Mr. Fox is not credible. Is this a possibility The Australian considered?
Why does Box mention the NSW enquiry’s failure to find evidence of a Catholic mafia without a qualifying statement that, given the limited terms of reference of the NSW enquiry and the potential that the Royal Commission may indeed find that one exists, Peter Fox may well be proven quite right in the end?
It may well be that the NSW enquiry’s report will not state a finding of evidence of a Catholic mafia. Given its limited terms of reference, however, this isn’t the end of the story. Even if the NSW enquiry formed the view that there was a reasonable chance that there was such a mafia, its terms of reference do not appear to give it scope to report on this. By failing to state the limited terms of reference of the NSW enquiry or even allude to them, doesn’t The Australian see the possibility that some readers will form the impression that the NSW enquiry fully investigated the possible existence of a Catholic mafia and failed to find it, and that therefore one does not exist in the NSW police force?
More importantly, why didn’t The Australian mention that the NSW enquiry is authorised to provide information to the Royal Commission about a broad range of matters that, potentially, could include the existence of evidence pointing towards the existence of a Catholic mafia within the NSW police force? The NSW enquiry website says that it is:
“… authorised to establish such lawful arrangements as considered appropriate in relation to the National Royal Commission [Ed. i.e., the Australian Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse], including for the referral or sharing of evidence and information, including of matters that may come to its attention which may fall outside the scope of the above terms of reference but which may be of relevance to the National Royal Commission or matters which, whilst falling within the scope of the above terms of reference, are considered more appropriately referred to the National Royal Commission.”
For all we know, the NSW enquiry may have been providing extensive evidence supportive of Peter Fox’s allegations and right now, the Royal Commission may be forming its own view that there is indeed a Catholic mafia operating within the NSW police force. Wouldn’t it have been more fair and balanced of The Australian to mention that the NSW enquiry may well be sharing vital information supportive of Peter Fox’s allegations with the Royal Commission?
What is The Australian getting at by mentioning the hold ups in the operation of Strike Force Lantle?
In one article, Box says:
“Yet all this, while welcome, comes at a cost.”
“The Strike Force Lantle police investigation, completed before Fox went on Lateline, has been held up for the 18 months since, with no decision on whether to pursue criminal charges likely before the NSW inquiry reports.”
“There is also no way of measuring the full effect of Fox’s interview on other abuse victims. Given what he said, it would be understandable if they are now reluctant to approach their local police.”
What is Box getting at? It’s a bit unclear. Would it have been better if Peter Fox had shut up about what he observed, so that victims feel okay about going to the police, even if there may be police protection of paedophiles in the background that will see their cases swept under the carpet? Isn’t it better that we do what is needed to ensure that victims can SAFELY go to the police, even if it means that we have to admit as a society that, sadly, sometimes people in positions of governmental authority don’t always act according to the law? Also, is Peter Fox responsible for any hold ups that may be occurring? The NSW enquiry was initially due to report by 30 September, 2013. Is it Peter Fox’s fault that the enquiry delayed its reporting date by eight months? It’s not quite clear what’s being said here, or why.
Why did The Australian end one of the articles with the statement “Mr Fox and the ABC did not comment last night, while [Newcastle Herald journalist Joanne ] McCarthy could not be contacted”?
Reasonably or not, many people tend to form the view that if a person doesn’t respond in the face of a serious allegation against them, that they are ‘guilty’ in some way. If Mr. Fox didn’t comment on what was written or possibly said to him (assuming he was in fact given a chance and ample time to do so – we don’t know, because Box doesn’t say), why should he be reasonably expected to comment upon what can only be described as speculation, given that The Australian (nor, presumably, Mr. Fox) has seen neither the final report, nor (it says) spoken to anyone from the enquiry?
Why the haste in reporting on what might come out of the NSW enquiry before the public gets to read its report in its entirety?
A casual reader of The Australian’s articles is likely to come away with several, possibly quite inaccurate, views about the NSW enquiry, its relationship with the Royal Commission, and what might happen in the future regarding further investigations, and indeed about Mr. Fox himself. But we don’t have the report in front of us to make up our own minds about what has happened. Wouldn’t it have been a more responsible course of action for The Australian to have waited until the full report comes out so that people can make up their own minds about what it all means, rather than relying on The Australian’s selective reporting of ‘facts’ that may not even be true?
What point, if any, is The Australian trying to make in linking Peter Fox’s actions to the establishment of the Royal Commission?
What, if anything, is implied by the statement: “Predictably, the November 2012 broadcast creates a storm and is widely seen as critical in the decision, four days later, to announce the royal commission into child sexual abuse.” What, if anything, is implied by the statement, following on from an assertion that the NSW enquiry is going to find against Peter Fox in a ‘key’ respect, that: “As the royal commission stretches into its second year, does it matter if it was founded on such uncertain ground?” You tell us, Dan: does it matter? If so, why and how? Do you not know, Dan, that people other than Peter Fox have been calling for a Royal Commission, as long ago as the early 1990s? Are you questioning the need for a Royal Commission? Have you forgotten that it’s not just the Catholic Church that’s under scrutiny by the Royal Commission? What exactly is your point, Dan?
What’s the relevance of the reference to emails between Lateline and Peter Fox (and journalist Joanne McCarthy)?
In one article by The Australian, much attention seems to have been given to Peter Fox’s quite wise use of the media. Is there intended to be some sort of implication that Peter Fox’s apparent level of sophistication in understanding the media and how it works is somehow damning of the man himself and the evidence he has given? Are whistleblowers expected to be naive and unsophisticated in their understanding of how the media works if they are to be believed?
Is there an implication in these articles that Peter Fox had ulterior motives in coming forward the way he did?
“So why did Fox speak out, and say the things he did?
Giving evidence to the state inquiry, he cites instances of frustrations and disagreements with his police colleagues in the past.
“What I do care about is that there are so many victims out there,” he told Lateline.
“At the end of the day, I don’t know whether I’ll face disciplinary charges or anything in relation to the stance I’ve taken.
“And again, I don’t care.”
What’s this all about? Yes, there is reference to Mr. Fox’s statement about caring for victims, but it’s only given after the statement about his ‘frustrations and disagreements’. Given that there is no qualification in the statement about ‘frustrations and disagreements’, and given the ordering of statements, isn’t there a chance that a certain proportion of The Australian’s readership is going to take away the message that Peter Fox is just a disgruntled employee with some sort of personality issues relating to his colleagues and a personal axe to grind with his employers? In this respect, The Australian fails to mention something rather important. Pursuant to Section 27 of the Special Commissions of Enquiry Act 1983 (NSW), any person who gives evidence to a special commission of enquiry “who gives testimony that is false or misleading in a material particular knowing it to be false or misleading, or not believing it to be true, is guilty of an indictable offence.” The penalty for such an offence is a maximum of five years’ imprisonment. Mr. Fox is a police officer of 30 odd years standing. He knows the law. No reasonable person could come to the conclusion that he would risk possible imprisonment in stating what he has to the NSW enquiry. It would’ve been nice if The Australian had seen fit to make some mention of that.
Just as I prepared to put this post up and get some sleep, I saw that a third article by Dan Box has just popped up, released in the middle of the night. The title of the article is “Whistleblower’s kiss had him at odds with force.” See the ‘Read more here’ section below. I’ll leave it to readers to read it themselves in the light of what I’ve said in this post, and make up their own minds about why The Australian has seen fit to report in this way now (given that the matters The Australian talks about have been on the public record for a long time), and in the way that it has. Suffice to say, it looks like we’re going to be seeing a lot more of this kind of reporting from The Australian. Let’s hope it’s not accompanied by more of the same from other mainstream outlets.
Some readers may wonder why I’ve bothered writing this post at all. Some may suggest that it’s about as useful as complaining to Caesar about Caesar’s wife.
The point is this. The Australian has taken a pretty clear stand on the issues well before all the facts are out, and its coverage needs to be read with a very critical eye. The Australian may also be shaping public opinion on the matters by jumping the gun on the NSW enquiry’s report and what it might or might not say. In addition to the personal tragedy of someone as brave as Mr. Fox speaking out and risking his career, his reputation, and other possibly dire consequences now being smeared in the media, there’s an additional problem. The Australian has a wide readership. The additional scandal of it all is that right now, there may be other police officers within the NSW police considering following in Fox’s footsteps, who might now back down because of the expectation that the media is going to report on them in the way that The Australian now appears to be doing.
Peter Fox took an incredible risk in doing what he did. Not to mention the personal ordeal he and his family have been through, including, apparently, even personal harassment through his personal GP (see ‘Read more here’, below). He did what he did for the sake of Australia’s children and for the families he wanted to see shielded from the horrors he witnessed in the course of his work as a police officer investigating child sexual abuse. As my father wrote back in May of last year, we owe it to Peter Fox to get behind him. As he said:
“Voices must be raised. It is incumbent on all who believe in justice for the victims not to let the Catholic Church and the culpable people within the NSW police department get away with shooting the messenger.”
If The Australian is right in its report about what the NSW enquiry is going to do, more voices must be raised to the NSW enquiry. If anyone who hasn’t yet spoken out has any more evidence that can back up what Peter Fox has been saying all this time, now is the time to be talking about it – loudly and without fear of the consequences. According to the NSW enquiry website
“Written submissions to the Special Commission of Inquiry were due by 1 March 2013. The Commissioner will consider written requests to provide a late submission to the Inquiry. The written request should provide the reason(s) for the delay in providing the Submission prior to sending it. Such requests to the Commissioner can be made by email to the following address: firstname.lastname@example.org.”
[Incidentally, it would also have been nice if The Australian had mentioned this too. There are three more weeks to go before the NSW enquiry reports – that’s a long time, and anything could happen in that time, including someone coming forward with evidence that will back up Mr. Fox’s testimony. Voices must also be raised to The Australian that the Australian public supports people like Peter Fox and isn’t impressed by the kind of selective reporting it’s been engaging in of late].
Finally, it is very much hoped that since discussion of the NSW enquiry’s findings now appears to be much ‘on’ in the media, given The Australian’s very premature strike, the Royal Commission will immediately release a clear and unequivocal statement to the Australian public that it too is very much interested in learning from others about the sorts of things Peter Fox has said to the NSW enquiry and is particularly interested in any evidence supportive of the existence of a possible ‘Catholic mafia’ operating within the NSW police force. Or indeed any police force.
Whatever happens, Peter Fox cannot simply be left standing alone in in the cold.