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It all started with a dead gigolo named Shane.
Who would have thought that, four years after the murder of Shane Chartres-Abbott in June 2003, an initially unrelated probe into inappropriate emailing would culminate in the resignations and suspension of several high-ranking police?
But that’s exactly what happened at the Office of Police Integrity (OPI) hearing in Melbourne over the last few weeks — the latest episode in the enduring drama of Victoria Police corruption, which, with its plot twists, secret evidence and high-profile cast, has had Victorians on the edge of their tram seats.
At the centre of the hearing were allegations that high-ranking police had leaked information that tipped off another police officer that he was under investigation by Operation Briars, a taskforce investigating the gangland murder of gigolo Shane.
As reported in The Age, the same officer, Detective Sergeant Peter Lalor, was concurrently being investigated over emails, written under the alias ‘Kit Walker,’ which discredited a rival to the Police Association leadership.
The bombshells dropped at the OPI hearings destroyed some high-profile careers — Assistant Commissioner Noel Ashby and Media and Corporate Communications Director Stephen Linnell resigned in disgrace after being found to have lied to the OPI, while Police Union President Paul Mullett and Head of the Media Unit Inspector Glenn Weir were suspended. But it has not been without collateral damage.
In the words of Counsel assisting the OPI, Dr Greg Lyon SC:
This hearing focuses on a very few. This hearing should not cast a shadow over the majority, who in reality are also betrayed by such misconduct .
Which is exactly what happened.
Apart from, perhaps, Inspector Weir, no one at the Media and Corporate Communications Department (MCCD) had the barest suspicion of the goings-on behind their Director’s door. Yet the fallout from Linnell’s public humiliation and resignation cast a pall over them all.
And slagging off the department attained new heights. Neil Mitchell on 3AW asked:
the police are so far into media manipulation it’s obscene. This isn’t to do with helping the public, it’s to do with hiding things from them. Why do we need 101 spin doctors in the Victoria Police?
Instead of asking the MCCD, he asked the Herald Sun’s Keith Moor, who answered:
I remember before there was a Media Unit and it was certainly, in my view, a much more efficient way of members of the public finding out exactly what was happening … The old Chinese whispers happens if you’ve got to deal with somebody other than the detective who pulled the knife out of the back, then you get a slightly different story…
Andrew Bolt’s post on the issue in his Herald Sun blog elicited dozens of responses from all the usual conspiracy theorists:
‘They probably need [the 101 people in the department] to keep all of the Vic Govt’s information suppression orders in line,’ wrote ‘Larry of Canberra.’
‘MartinX’ of Springfield Lakes was on the right track: ‘Some of those 101 would be involved in internal communications, possibly AV work, intranet support, etc.’
But a salient point was made by ‘K Walker of Melbourne,’ who suggested: ‘Before the boring slagging off most should get some facts right.’
As the Media Department later informed Mitchell, the MCCD actually comprises 102 people (OK, make that 101 now) across several divisions, only one of which, Inspector Weir’s Media Unit, is involved in day-to-day media campaigns and response — accounting for 22 people. The remainder work in areas such as Strategic Communications, the Film and TV Office, the Police Museum and, largest of all, 50, in the Police Bands.
But the Herald Sun’s Roger Franklin wasn’t letting the facts get in the way of a good rant. On 16 November, he wrote:
at a time when police are thin on the ground, so stretched that some officers responding to a recent riot in Noble Park had to be summoned from 40km away, why did disgraced PR man Steve Linnell need 101 staff in his spin machine? Residents in areas plagued by hoons, drugs and increasing numbers of knife crimes will be particularly interested in that one.
Fair enough, the next time there is a riot in Noble Park, perhaps Victoria Police can redeploy its pipe band.
The MCCD was enraged. But worse was to come with the very public humiliation of their boss. If the cringing transcriptions of secretly taped conversations weren’t enough to destroy Linnell’s career, there was no shortage of journalists willing to add an extra sentence or two.
Linnell’s locker-room language was a particular shock for some: Paul Austin editorialised in The Age about the ’foul-mouthed’ Linnell — as if newsrooms aren’t equally as colourful.
Roger Franklin wrote: ‘[Linnell] talks the lingo like a man born to the blue and he shoots the poison darts of gossip and slander … as if he was himself in the running for the top job.’
Nor was there a shortage of people willing to say ‘I told you so.’ At The Age, John Silvester wrote:
One senior officer was warned that Linnell was a ’wild card’ who lacked the experience for the job and could be manipulated. Before he left The Age he was warned to be wary of cut-throat police politics because it could be career-ending and to try to temper his locker-room language because it could be used against him. He chose to ignore the advice. Former media director Bruce Tobin offered to provide a background briefing on the job and the key players in the force. Linnell declined, preferring to wander into the minefield without a map.
At least the Herald Sun’s senior police reporter Geoff Wilkinson speaks from personal experience, having been Victoria Police Media Director 1981-89.
Linnell failed one of the most basic tenets of journalism and his job — the need to be right and assume nothing. He also ignored the fact that the first test of the credibility of a police media director … is the number and nature of the secrets you can keep.
By their very nature, relations between police media units and the news media are strained. Stereotypically, journalists perceive media units as providing too little information too late, while police place the imperatives of their own investigative inquiries above those of journalists.
In a time when both police and news media are equally skeptical of each other, media units are caught in the middle trying to facilitate the timely exchange of information. In reality, it works quite well. Police news, particularly crime and arrests, sell newspapers, while police rely on the media to promote campaigns, improve the public perceptions of police, and call for information.
It is not foolproof, as past president of Liberty Victoria Brian Walters wrote:
Instead of informing the public, the [police] media unit can be used to spin a line that is deceptive, or even use their position to trade influence.
Compared to the rest of the world, Victoria Police charts the middle ground with its media relations. In Sweden, at the overarching National Police Administrative Board (Rikspolisstyrelsen), the desire to be seen as transparent means the official police magazine has beaten the news media in breaking controversial policing stories. Any police can proffer personal comments on policing issues without fear of retribution from their superiors, and following media conferences, journalists may even be granted one-on-one interviews with relevant police to ensure they get different grabs from their rivals.
The New York Police Department, meanwhile, is strict with its media control; reporters have office space within the media bureau which facilitates all media comment. The NYPD utilises technology such as podcasts to promote public messages — with the added bonus that journalists can write off iPods as a tax expense.
But perhaps the most generous police media relations exist in Cambodia. Following the January 2004 assassination of Trade Union leader Chea Vichea, whose death was the seventh political murder in a year, the police surprised everybody with the speed in which they apprehended the two murderers. A media conference was hastily convened around a large table at the police station, and the ‘culprits’ were paraded in for journalists to photograph, touch and question.
So what if the lowly small-time crooks protested, tears streaming down their cheeks, that their confessions had been beaten out of them, or that the Phnom Penh Post later found that one had been four hours away at the time of the murder? The pressure was off the police to solve those dastardly political murders, and the media had a great front page.About the author:
Sam Davies worked in the Victoria Police Media Department between 2004-2006 as a journalist on Police Life magazine and as the Internet Content Editor, also undertaking a research trip to the Swedish National Police Board and the NYPD. He worked with the Phnom Penh Post in January 2004 and is now a freelance journalist based in France