The disaster of 'noble cause corruption' in Victoria's police force

Amongst the basest of human emotions is Schadenfreude, an expressive German word for joy in another’s discomfiture. I confess to having indulged in this unlovely sentiment after reading today’s headline in The Australian: “Top cops to face jail for ‘Lawyer X’”.

I wish no one a term in the calaboose, but after Victoria Police helped send Cardinal George Pell there for an imaginary offence, it seems fitting that members of Victoria Police should contemplate that prospect for offences which were far from imaginary.

There is a link between Pell and Lawyer X.

First, the who, what and why of Lawyer X.

Lawyer X, to use the moniker by which she was described in early documents, is now known to be Nicola Gobbo, a defence barrister who specialised in criminal work. She represented some of Melbourne’s leading criminals during gang wars in which dozens died. But for many years Ms Gobbo was also a registered police informant. This arrangement -- unprecedented in Australia -- was a fundamental breach of lawyer-client confidentiality which struck at the heart of the integrity of the legal system.

When Ms Gobbo's misconduct came to light, the convictions of literally hundreds of dangerous criminals became unsafe. A number of them may eventually walk free. As they should. Even criminals are entitled to a fair trial and an advocate. Her double-dealing denied them this right.

The case made its way to the High Court of Australia. In a scathing judgement released in December 2018, the Court stated that the criminal justice system had been corrupted by the very people who were sworn to uphold it:

"Victoria Police were guilty of reprehensible conduct in knowingly encouraging EF [‘Lawyer X’] to do as she did and were involved in sanctioning atrocious breaches of the sworn duty of every police officer to discharge all duties imposed on them faithfully and according to law without favour or affection, malice or ill-will.”

Such was the public outrage that the Victorian Premier, Daniel Andrews, was forced to create a royal commission. Counsel Assisting the royal commission has just released submissions -- and they put the top brass of Victoria Police in a very bad light.

The fundamental flaw in the culture of Victoria Police, Counsel Assisting believes, is what is described in these submissions as “noble cause corruption". In other words, members of the police force were so convinced of the justice of their cause that they would do whatever it took to obtain a conviction. It was a kind of crude consequentialism. The noble end justified ignoble means, even “grossly improper and unlawful” means. In this case, it was, in the words of former police commissioner Graham Ashton, the “glittering prize” of chucking crims in the slammer and ending the drug war.

Incredibly, even after the High Court had settled the matter, Commissioner Ashton, the state’s leading representative of law and order, disputed its decision. Interviewed on a popular radio station, he suggested that it might be more important to behave “ethically” than legally.

Ethics is a murky, murky thing, I reckon, Neil. You know, what’s ethical and what’s not is often a judgement that a person makes individually and then other people try and apply their judgement onto other people’s judgements. That ethics has to be weighed up in that whole environment around what Police were dealing with at the time ... it was a very testing time for Vic Pol and testing time for the community. Police were under a lot of pressure to bring about a conclusion to those underworld killings, particularly when you had shots being fired at (indistinct)... and kids running around you just think:  jeez, what’s next?

Counsel Assisting was not happy with this ethical code. Counsel Assisting declared that in this and other radio interviews Commissioner Ashton had “sent a message to Victoria Police members which might be understood by them to mean that they can safely ignore both the rule of law and the condemnation of the High Court and engage in ‘noble cause’ corruption.” 

Turning now to the case of Cardinal Pell, it should be noted that Commissioner Ashton was singing a similar tune earlier this year after the Cardinal was released from jail. He was asked whether Victoria Police had it in for Pell.

“What a joke,” Commissioner Ashton said. “We don’t run vendettas against people, that’s not what we’re about, that’s not why we take an oath. We take an oath to serve the community and that means we do it without fear or favour.” In the wake of the "Lawyer X" affair, this reassurance should be taken with a grain of salt.

In fact, Commissioner Ashton did help to run a vendetta. In March 2013 when he was Deputy Commissioner, Victoria Police established Operation Tethering to trawl for complaints against Cardinal Pell. In December 2015, the police advertised the investigation and invited complainants to step forward. If it looks like a vendetta, swims like a vendetta, and quacks like a vendetta, by golly, it probably is a vendetta.

When allegations against Pell surfaced in the ABC, Pell protested that Victoria Police had leaked information to the media. Commissioner Ashton denied this categorically.

In the light of the submissions of Counsel Assisting about “noble cause corruption”, this protestation now sounds very hollow. It is quite plausible that Commissioner Ashton and his colleagues were so convinced of the “noble cause” of jailing sex-offender priests that they would have authorised or turned a blind eye to any means if it resulted in the glittering prize of convicting George Pell.

In 2016 the Cardinal called for an investigation into “to assess whether any actions of elements of the Victoria Police and the ABC program amount to a conspiracy to pervert the course of justice”.

Isn’t it about time to put the police and media who ruined George Pell through the same wringer? Why did he have to spend 405 days in jail for an imaginary crime while the corrupt engineers of Australia’s most egregious miscarriage of justice carry on as if nothing had happened? Let’s have that investigation.


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