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How Ghost Train Fire exposed remarkable police corruption, yet also failed ABC’s high journalistic standards

An independent review has concluded that while the ABC’s recent true-crime series on the 1979 Luna Park fire makes a strong case that it was arson, the program misled its audience by suggesting a link between the notorious Sydney crime figure Abe Saffron and the late NSW premier, Neville Wran.

The review was commissioned by the ABC after an initial complaint about the program’s treatment of Wran had been dismissed by the ABC’s internal processes.

It was carried out by one of Australia’s foremost media scholars, Emeritus Professor Rodney Tiffen of Sydney University, and the distinguished investigative journalist Chris Masters.

Three main questions in the series

The Exposed: The Ghost Train Fire series dealt with three main issues.

  1. Was the cause of the fire properly investigated by the police, bearing in mind six children and one adult died?

  2. Who stood to benefit from the proposed redevelopment of the site that followed the fire?

  3. Was Wran connected with Saffron and did he interfere with the decision-making about the redevelopment to advance Saffron’s interests?

On the first issue, Tiffen and Masters found the program produced sufficient evidence to show that on the balance of probabilities, the fire was caused by arson. They went on to say:

The police investigation was inadequate and had a predetermined outcome – that the fire was the result of an electrical fault.

The reason for this police failure was corruption, and the links between the officers involved and organised crime figures.

The program mounts a scathing demolition of the police investigation. Uncovering fresh evidence and with the use of witness testimony, Exposed demonstrated there was no effective forensic investigation of the scene, and in fact it was immediately compromised by police and others.

The program convincingly makes the case that the coroner had to proceed with insufficient evidence.

As to who stood to benefit, the reviewers found that although Saffron’s name did not appear on any relevant documents, the program produced evidence showing Saffron’s cousins and nephew were principals of Harbourside Amusements, the company that ultimately won the tender to redevelop the Luna Park site.

The reviewers said the program mounted a persuasive case that through personal links, Saffron was effectively in charge of this venture.

Read more: 10 years after Finkelstein, media accountability has gone backwards

Shortcomings with one main argument

It was on the third issue where the reviewers found fault with the series.

They found the crucial decision to award the contract to Harbourside Amusements was made by a committee of senior public servants, and there was no evidence of Wran interfering with that decision-making.

Concerning Wran’s alleged connections with Saffron, the reviewers found a number of shortcomings.

The first was reliance on evidence from what became known as The Age tapes. These were made by NSW police tapping the telephone of a Sydney solicitor, Morgan Ryan, who was suspected of being involved in an immigration racket, among other things.

Several of the taped conversations were between Ryan and Justice Lionel Murphy, a former attorney-general in the Whitlam government and by then a justice of the High Court.

The editorial review said the ABC’s allegations of political corruption involving Neville Wran were ‘vague, anonymous, and unhelpful’. TRACEY NEARMY/AAP

However, because the tapping was done without a warrant, the tapes were inadmissible in court. They were leaked to the crime reporter Bob Bottom and published in The Age in February 1984. It led to a royal commission.

The commission found that although the tapes were genuine, the transcripts were too unreliable to be admissible as evidence in court.

One allegation in the transcripts was that Murphy had intervened with Wran to arrange for a Saffron company to win the lease for Luna Park, at the behest of Ryan. Further, it was alleged Murphy told Ryan that Wran had agreed to do this.

Concerning this, the reviewers said:

Wran himself was not caught in any surviving evidence, and so he figures in the transcripts only as a figure whom others are making claims about. Even if Wran had agreed with Murphy to make representations regarding the Luna Park lease – and this is far from an established fact – it is not clear how he did so.

The reviewers continued:

The program makers contended to the reviewers that the surviving Age tapes evidence supports the proposition that Neville Wran was allegedly in direct communication with criminals.

The reviewers note the 394-page report sighted by them does not mention Luna Park. Nor is there any evidence of Neville Wran’s communications being directly intercepted.

Strong impression that Wran was complicit

Tiffen and Masters also did not find corroborating evidence in the program to support the related question of whether Wran socialised with Saffron.

The primary source here was Rosemary Opitz, who said she was “in Abe Saffron’s inner circle for approximately 40 years”. She said Saffron used to put on Friday night drinks, and that she saw Wran there, “very pally” with Saffron.

The reviewers concluded the program’s due diligence checks affirmed Opitz’s credibility. However, they said no solid evidence was given to corroborate her most serious claims, and no contrary views were presented.

Finally, the reviewers drew attention to a storyboard used by the program to illustrate alleged connections between Saffron and several other figures, including Wran. Of this, the reviewers stated:

Apart from the Opitz interview, no such direct relationship between Saffron and Wran has been established. This graphic is dramatic but in suggesting such a strong and direct link between Wran and Saffron it is misleading.

The cumulative effect of interview commentary, the storyboard graphic, the sequence summarising findings with family members and absence of rebuttal content left the reviewers with a strong impression the program concluded Wran was complicit.

In response, ABC News Director Gaven Morris issued a statement saying the network did not accept the reviewers’ opinion that the graphic was misleading. He went on:

The series did not purport to have proven the allegation. The review does not question the decision to include any of that material in the series but contends that viewers would have been left with the impression that the program was asserting Mr Wran’s guilt. That was not the program’s intention or assertion.

The ABC’s editorial director, Craig McMurtrie, had previously told a Senate committee the program had not needed to corroborate the material about Wran with multiple sources because Wran was not a focus of the series. Further, he said, the material about Wran was presented as allegations, not proven facts.

This position was also supported by the ABC’s editor-in-chief and managing director, David Anderson.

‘Unproven’ allegations swinging in the breeze

These responses do not represent the journalistic standards the ABC is renowned for, on the whole rightly. “What is your second source?” is one of the first questions the editor of an investigations unit will ask a reporter bringing forth serious allegations of the kind aired about Wran.

Serious allegations cannot just be left swinging in the breeze as “unproven” when the initiating process that hangs them out there is your own investigation.

It doesn’t matter whether Wran was the focus of the series or not. What matters is the seriousness of the allegations made against him: that he was complicit in a corrupt process and socialised with a notorious crime figure who ultimately benefited from that corrupt process.

At the same time, the baby should not be thrown out with the bathwater.

Anyone who was paying attention to the aftermath of the Luna Park fire knew there was a stench surrounding it, but in the Sydney of the late 1970s and early 1980s, it was impossible to get to the bottom of it.

As the reviewers noted, the Exposed series did a remarkable job in showing how corrupt police derailed the investigation from the start, prompting calls now for a new inquest or a judicial inquiry.

The series also joined the dots connecting Saffron to the crime, providing at least a modicum of explanatory relief for the families devastated by the deaths of six children and an innocent man.

Read more: The long history of political corruption in NSW — and the downfall of MPs, ministers and premiers

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