Nick Kaldas specialises in assassinations. It was not his intention, it just worked out that way. He is on leave from his job as Deputy NSW Police Commissioner to head the investigation by the United Nations Special Tribunal into the assassination of a former prime minister of Lebanon, Rafiq Hariri, and several related murders and murder attempts.
Kaldas has also served in Iraq training the new police force, which routinely deals with political murder. His expertise in such dark matters began back in 1994, when he led the investigation into Australia's first political assassination, the murder of the NSW Labor MP John Newman. A local Labor politician and Vietnamese community leader, Phuong Ngo, was convicted in 2001 of orchestrating the killing.
Eight years later, to the distress of Kaldas, he has had to deal with a different kind of assassination - character assassination. It began on April 7 last year, when ABC's Four Corners broadcast a program which questioned whether the conviction of Phuong Ngo had been a miscarriage of justice, based in part on sloppy conduct by Kaldas.
The Four Corners program was loaded with suppositions such as this one, by a former Labor politician: "I don't think they [Phuong Ngo's accusers] had anything else to go on. I think just because he was Vietnamese." Friends of Ngo, such as the refugee advocate Marion Le, were quoted claiming there had been "a miscarriage of justice".
The report was based in part on the work of two academics from the Australian National University, Hugh Selby and Don Greig. Soon after the program went to air, both men made submissions to the Chief Justice of NSW, James Spigelman, calling for the murder case to be reopened. On the basis of these submissions and the public claims made in the Four Corners program, Spigelman ordered a judicial inquiry into the case. This was highly unusual. On the same day, the NSW Attorney-General, John Hatzistergos, issued a press release dissociating himself from the decision. [Spigelman was a far-Left student in his university days]
The Chief Justice ordered the inquiry without seeking advice from the NSW Police, the Director of Public Prosecutions, or the NSW Crime Commission. The matter had been exhaustively examined by hearings of the NSW Crime Commission, a coroner's inquest, a committal hearing, three Supreme Court trials (one aborted, one resulting in a 10-to-one hung jury, and one which led to the conviction of Ngo), an appeal to the Court of Criminal Appeal, and an appeal to the High Court of Australia, which declined to give leave to hear the case.
The inquiry went ahead. The cost to the taxpayer was $770,000. When it was over, the judicial officer who conducted the inquiry, the retired judge David Patten, issued a devastatingly comprehensive rejection of the accusations that had been regurgitated on Four Corners and put by Ngo's supporters in submissions to the inquiry, including a former independent member of the NSW upper house, Peter Breen. To quote from Patten's report, released last week:
"Not one scintilla of evidence points to any wrongdoing or improper activity by Mr Kaldas … despite a number of allegations by various supporters of Mr Ngo there is no evidence that the investigation of Mr Newman's murder was conducted otherwise than professionally and competently …
"[The] material put before the inquiry increased rather than diminished the strength of the Crown's case at trial. Moreover, Mr Ngo's own evidence, which was not before the jury at the trial where he was convicted, was, I believe, very destructive of his claim of innocence …
"Regrettably, the strength of the evidence available against Mr Ngo was virtually ignored by his supporters in their submissions to the inquiry. Unsupported allegations of gross impropriety were substituted for analysis of the facts … Mr Selby's submission to the Chief Justice … lost all significance, in my opinion, when scrutinised at an open hearing …
"I find that nothing in the matters raised by Mr Selby [and] nothing which has come before me [suggest] the investigation into Mr Newman's murder was conducted otherwise than thoroughly and competently by police officers dedicated to the task."
During the preparation of the Four Corners report, Kaldas declined to be interviewed on camera because, he told me last week, he had come to the view that the ABC reporter, Debbie Whitmont, was biased against the Crown case. He did, however, agree to go through the trial evidence with Whitmont, in detail. He took notes of these meetings. When the Four Corners program went to air he found that not one of the points he had made to Whitmont was mentioned.
Unusually, the accusations made on Four Corners were subjected to forensic scrutiny and the report by Patten found the inquiry had "increased rather than diminished" the strength of the Crown's case. He criticised Ngo's supporters for their "lack of objectivity", "intemperate language" and "making allegations of fraud, perversion of justice, and improper conduct … without a shred of evidence".
Yet all this was the basis on which the two ANU academics and Four Corners based their claims. Debbie Whitmont submitted the report for a Walkley Award. And won.
Last week, Four Corners issued a statement standing by its report. No acknowledgement of error. No acknowledgement of distress caused. No hint of admission that the program contained innuendo, omission, supposition, false accusation and a preconceived outcome. This is exactly the sort of case another ABC program, Media Watch, should examine, but it is the last thing it would touch, because the opinionated Media Watch actually operates as Ideology Watch. Such is the ethical rigour at our ABC.
Posted by John Ray. For a daily critique of Leftist activities, see DISSECTING LEFTISM. For a daily survey of Australian politics, see AUSTRALIAN POLITICS Also, don't forget your daily roundup of pro-environment but anti-Greenie news and commentary at GREENIE WATCH . Email me (John Ray) here
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