Diary

Gadfly
Grouper stupor

The ABC people know a trick or two about ratings triumphs. Having Grouper Greg Sheridan on Insiders as frequently as possible is a sure-fire winner.

There’s the grizzled Grouper, with his tinted locks, nice and warm in his jumper and comfy jacket, dragging more viewers to the show by extolling the virtues of fossils and pooh-poohing market mechanisms to put a price on them: “Coal is still the best option for Australia; the second-best option would be gas; nuclear would be a very good option.”

It’s to be hoped that the show’s frontman, David Speers, gets around to revisiting some of Grouper’s other favourite theories, including those about the Iraq War and the elusive weapons of mass destruction – except our pundit is not certain about them being so elusive.

For ages he’s argued variously:

• It was up to Saddam to avoid war by destroying his arsenal;

• Iraq had to be invaded even if it had no WMDs to destroy;

• Doubts about WMDs are ludicrous;

• The evidence about Iraq’s weapons program is overwhelming;

• If anyone thought Saddam was telling the truth, they are in need of psychiatric treatment; and,

• Maybe Saddam’s own scientists had misled him into thinking that Iraq did possess WMDs.

It’s spellbinding stuff and for the viewers it’s a refreshing change from Chuckles Henderson. Gadfly is reminded of a line from the sage’s namesake, Richard Brinsley Sheridan, who when referring to a member of the house of commons said that he “is indebted to his memory for his jests, and to his imagination for his facts”.

Pry in the Sky

It’s a perplexing world, what with United States Secretary of State Mike Pompeo threatening to “disconnect” from Australia if Victoria’s belt and braces arrangement with China affects US security and its ability to spy on every conversation on the planet.

Then we have China being beastly to Australia because we’re Trump’s Toady No. 1. For good measure, President Xi is putting the frighteners on us by ordering a military mobilisation for any eventuality.

One person who can make sense of the complexity is former Cleo editor and diplomatic affairs expert Sharri Markson.

Fresh from spruiking in the Smellograph and on Fox News the leaked “Five Eyes” dossier about a Wuhan laboratory cooking up deadly viruses, she’s doing it all again on Sky News tomorrow night, with an “exposé revealing the extraordinary lengths the communist superpower took to shift the blame”.

The finger has been pointed at the US embassy in Canberra as the likely source of this leaked dodgy intelligence document, composed of publicly available information and press clippings. Arthur B. Culvahouse Jr is the US ambassador, a former lawyer who selected Sarah Palin for John McCain as his running mate in 2008.

Anyway, never one to retreat in the face of a storm, Markson is giving the “bombshell” dossier another fling on Sky. As the publicity material reads:

“Sharri Markson will walk you through the cover-up in the early days of the crisis and present new evidence which suggests China’s official explanation for the outbreak is wrong.”

You might have to suspend your powers of imagination for this because Pompeo, who had earlier claimed “enormous evidence” about the bat lab in Wuhan, has been in retreat and now says, “We don’t have certainty ... We’re all trying to get clarity.”

And in that mission, Sharri is here to help.

Secret disservice

Another secret court appearance in Canberra this week by Bernard Collaery. He is charged with conspiring with a former client, the ex-spy known as Witness K, and breaching national security by communicating ASIS information about Australia’s Timor-Leste bugging operation.

We are now up to more than 30 preliminary rounds of this case, with an extraordinary amount of time being taken up by lawyers for the attorney-general insisting that proceedings be conducted without the presence of the public or pesky news reporters.

That’s not the worst of it, for it’s understood that chunks of the evidence must remain unseen by the defence lawyers and the jury.

Collaery has filed affidavits from former Foreign Affairs and Trade minister Gareth Evans, former chief of the defence force Admiral Chris Barrie and former senior diplomat John McCarthy.

This is a seven-day hearing to determine in accordance with the National Security Information Act whether the trial will be partly or fully held in secret.

There was an appearance in court on Wednesday by Evans and the others will follow to challenge claims by Attorney-General The Christian Porter that there would be a risk of prejudice to Australia’s national security if information was disclosed publicly during the substantive criminal proceedings.

It’s unlikely that Winston Howard or Lord Fishnets Downer will be called at the trial itself by the prosecution, but maybe Collaery’s lawyers will get them in the box for a bit of a tickle-up.

Collaery told waiting reptiles of the press: “I am unable to say much and you are unable to report much. This is the state of our now-fragile democracy.”

Outside the court and at the Commonwealth offices in Sydney this week, protesters gathered in support of Collaery, a former attorney-general for the ACT. Some were wearing hessian bags over their heads in an attempt to draw attention to the veil of secrecy drawn over the proceedings.

The bags were sewn by Sister Susan Connelly and the Josephite nuns at Lakemba.

Deep sleep reawakens

On Monday the Federal Court revisits the Chelmsford royal commission.

Two doctors, John Herron and John Gill, are suing HarperCollins Australia and ABC journalist Steve Cannane for defamation over a chapter in Fair Game, a 2016 book about Scientology in Australia, and how “deep sleep therapy” at the Chelmsford private hospital in Sydney’s north was exposed.

The treatment involved a mix of barbiturates and electroconvulsive therapy administered to more than 1000 patients in the 1960s and 1970s, with some disastrous and fatal results.

Psychiatrist Herron and Gill were adversely named in the findings of a royal commission on Chelmsford conducted between 1988 and 1990 by former Supreme Court justice John Slattery.

HarperCollins and Cannane unsuccessfully applied for the case to be thrown out as an abuse of process because the doctors had brought proceedings 40 years after the incidents in question.

The publisher and the journalist say the delay has produced prejudice and unfairness as many potential witnesses are now dead or unable to give evidence because of poor health.

Justice Jayne Jagot rejected the argument that it was an abuse of process to sue for defamation if the circumstances meant that the publisher is unable to prove the truth of the claims made against it.

Essentially the trial is a re-run of the royal commission and has been heralded as a “zombie case” coming back from the dead.

Brewing up a blue

In other defamation news, there were sighs of relief around the globe as the High Court of England and Wales resolved a vexed question: is it defamatory to accuse a craft brewer of being a Trump supporter?

Justice Andrew Nicol has put the matter to rest, finding that in this instance defamation does not arise and so the claim had to be dismissed.

The BrewDog people in Britain got involved in a promotional tie-up with “redneck US brewers” Scofflaw from Atlanta, Georgia.

The PR firm for Scofflaw put out a press release that said: “Scofflaw (known as the Jackass brand of the brewing industry) partner with badass beer brand BrewDog to launch in the UK. The self-confessed ‘trailer trash’ brewers are renowned in the States for their lawless attitude and have landed in London today – their aim? To get the UK ‘beered up redneck style’, completely free of charge! But there is a hook… you have to be a Trump supporter.”

Oh dear. BrewDog sued the PR firm, saying it is a “punk” brewer operating an “anti-business business model”, and that it is known as a critic of the Pussy Grabber. Further, their “equity punk” investors were complaining.

With alluring finesse Justice Nicol carved his way through the issues, concluding that the defamatory meanings contended by BrewDog were not to be found in the press release.

“Even in England Mr Trump has supporters as well as opponents. In other words, simply to say of someone that they were a supporter of Donald Trump (or his policies) would not arguably lower that person in the eyes of right-thinking people generally.”

This proposition about “right-thinking people” should be properly tested. Surely an appeal is in order.

Tips and tattle: [email protected]

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on May 30, 2020 as "Gadfly: Grouper stupor".

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Richard Ackland
is the publisher of Justinian. He is The Saturday Paper’s diarist-at-large and legal affairs editor.

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