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Media Watch - Questions Unanswered

And now, as they say, to something completely different - and a good deal more complicated.

In April last year, the ABC's Four Corners aired a report that went on to win a coveted Walkley Award.

'The Newman Case' argued that, for many reasons, the conviction of Vietnamese-Australian businessman Phuong Ngo for the 1994 murder of NSW state MP John Newman was unsafe.

Two months later came this news:

Lisa Millar: Ten years after he was jailed for the murder of NSW MP John Newman, Phuong Ngo has had a victory in the campaign to clear his name. The Chief Justice has announced a judicial review of the case. — ABC News NSW, 6th June, 2008

That decision seemed to vindicate the Four Corners program.

But when former judge David Patten handed down his report two weeks ago, he found, emphatically, that Phuong Ngo's conviction should stand.

He was not inquiring into the Four Corners program, and made no direct comment about it.

But NSW Attorney-General John Hatzistergos was scathing:

John Hatzistergos: Now what that program did... is seriously tarnish public confidence in the judicial process in New South Wales, attack the credibility of some very fine prosecutors and police officers, with what I believe was baseless means of being able to pursue such allegations. — Radio 2GB, Mornings with Ray Hadley, 21st April, 2009

A declaration of interest: Four Corners reporter Debbie Whitmont, and executive producer Sue Spencer, are not just long-term colleagues of mine, they are close friends.

And in September last year I was a member of a three-person panel that unanimously selected "The Newman Case" to be one of three finalists for a Walkley Award. I declared my interest at the time.

A different panel of judges made the final selection.

In the past two weeks the Media Watch team has been looking again at the Four Corners program. And tonight we're raising three issues that concern us. First, Four Corners raised questions about the alleged murder weapon, a rare Beretta pistol found almost four years after the murder in the Georges River at Voyager Point in South-West Sydney.

A leading corrosion expert, Dr Ian MacLeod, told Four Corners that the gun was far too badly rusted to have been in the river for less than four years - an opinion that he later changed as a result of further research.

But what police objected to was this:

Debbie Whitmont: Ian MacLeod has spent 30 years doing searches underwater. He found it surprising that when police divers were instructed to look near a pylon, they found the gun in 20 minutes. Dr Ian MacLeod: All I can say is to go in and find a gun within 20 minutes of getting into the water is extraordinarily lucky. — ABC, Four Corners, 'The Newman Case', 7th April, 2008

Dr MacLeod went on to hint that he thought a pre-corroded gun might have been planted in the river - a serious allegation.

Dr Ian MacLeod: The only way in which these two pieces of evidence can stack up together is that somebody knew exactly where the gun had been deposited and that it was a gun that had previously been corroded. — ABC, Four Corners, 'The Newman Case', 7th April, 2008

But how 'extraordinarily lucky' was the police find?

The police point out that the divers had already been searching under the footbridge for at least an hour on the previous day. Nobody 'instructed the divers to search near a pylon'.

They were briefed by then Detective Senior Constable Ian McNab, who tells Media Watch:

I briefed them on the first day and basically it was to do either side of the bridge and it was up to the divers to go about it the best way that they thought. — Statement from Detective Senior Constable Ian McNab to Media Watch, 30th April, 2009

That information was available in transcripts of the Phuong Ngo trials.

When we put it to Four Corners, they responded:

One hour's search near the shore on the previous day does not materially alter the point that, when divers began searching the middle of the river, the gun was found in 20 minutes. — Email from Sue Spencer (Executive Producer, Four Corners) to Media Watch, 30th April, 2009

That's for the viewer to judge, I'd have thought.

But why were the police searching the river at Voyager Point anyway, nearly four years after the murder? After all, it's over eight kilometres from the murder scene in Cabramatta.

Well, because, as the prosecutor explained to Four Corners...

Mark Tedeschi: Immediately after the shooting of John Newman, the movement of Phuong Ngo's phone could be traced going down Newbridge Road, Heathcote Road to the Voyager Point area. — ABC, Four Corners, 'The Newman Case', 7th April, 2008

Four Corners made a big point of questioning this mobile phone evidence.

It interviewed a telecommunications expert, Professor Reg Coutts:

Prof. Reg Coutts: It does concern me that too much is made of too little, that really the way the evidence is presented and not actually challenged is that it is potentially misleading. — ABC, Four Corners, 'The Newman Case', 7th April, 2008

Four Corners explained:

Debbie Whitmont: Phuong Ngo denied going anywhere near the river. He said that sometime after 9:30, the time of the murder, he delivered a press release to a Vietnamese newspaper. But at his trial, the Telstra records of calls from his car phone made Phuong Ngo's story seem impossible. About 20 minutes after the murder, one of Phuong Ngo's calls was picked up by a phone tower antenna designed to cover an arc - here coloured green - which included the river. But Phuong Ngo claimed he could only have made the call from the other side of the tower near the Vietnamese newspaper. — ABC, Four Corners, 'The Newman Case', 7th April, 2008

But Assistant Commissioner Nick Kaldas, who led the police investigative team, told Media Watch that Phuong Ngo:

... had in fact given lengthy evidence, during which he clearly and repeatedly placed himself at the scene of the location of the weapon, and in fact adopting the Telstra evidence himself as being accurate of his movements. — Email from Assistant Commissioner Nick Kaldas (NSW Police) to Media Watch, 30th April, 2009

Well in our view, both those statements are misleading.

Phuong Ngo didn't give evidence at his third trial, the one that convicted him.

But at his second trial - and again at the judicial inquiry - he admitted that that night he had travelled down Heathcote Road, missed the turn-off on the left he'd intended to take, and done a U-turn at Walder Road, within range of the green arc in Four Corners' graphic.

And that, he said, was where he probably made the phone call.

Though the transcript of the second trial was available to Four Corners, it didn't tell the viewer, or ask Professor Coutts, about this evidence.

Coutts learned of it only at the judicial inquiry:

If the proposition had been put to me that he was on Walder Road then I wouldn't have had to do any work at all. — Statement from Professor Reg Coutts (Telecommunications, University of Adelaide) to Media Watch, 23rd April, 2009

Walder Road is about three kilometres from the newspaper office where Phuong Ngo claimed he was going. On the other hand, it's even further from the footbridge at Voyager Point - what Mr Kaldas calls 'the scene of the location of the weapon'.

In any case, according to the judicial inquiry's report, Phuong Ngo's admission that he was on Walder Road at the relevant time made Professor Coutts' evidence irrelevant.

Four Corners says they didn't mention it because it wasn't put before the jury in the third trial.

It is the conviction in the third trial that demonstrates the use of the phone records in Ngo's conviction. This was the issue Professor Coutts was questioning. — Email from Sue Spencer (Executive Producer, Four Corners) to Media Watch, 30th April, 2009

But the viewer - and experts like Professor Coutts - are surely entitled to crucial information, whenever it emerged.

There's a similar problem with the alleged confession of Fairfield councillor Albert Ranse.

Debbie Whitmont: And you can categorically say you had nothing to do with it? Albert Ranse: Yeah, sure. Absolutely. — ABC, Four Corners, 'The Newman Case', 7th April, 2008

Four Corners questioned the way the police presented evidence about Albert Ranse in court.

Ranse was drawn into the Newman case mainly as a result of an allegation by migration agent Marion Le. She is a friend of Phuong Ngo's, and a passionate believer in his innocence.

In 1999 Marion Le secretly recorded hours of conversation with Albert Ranse in her car.

She claimed he'd told her earlier that he killed John Newman. She was trying to get him to repeat the confession on tape.

He didn't do that, but he did say this:

Marion Le: Did you see a green car? Albert Ranse: No. Marion Le: No green car? Albert Ranse: No. Marion Le: Just one car. Albert Ranse: Just one car. Marion Le: Whose car? Your car? Albert Ranse: My car. The one I burnt. — ABC, Four Corners, 'The Newman Case', 7th April, 2008

Four Corners raised the fact that the police didn't reveal to the defence the record of one of three interviews they conducted with Ranse.

The police say that Four Corners didn't reveal to its viewers some crucial facts that caused them to rule out Ranse's involvement.

As one example, Ms Le stated that he told her he had committed the murder in his white Mitsubishi, and later burnt it out for insurance. It was discovered by investigators that the car was stolen and burnt out some five months before the murder. — Email from Assistant Commissioner Nick Kaldas (NSW Police) to Media Watch, 30th April, 2009

Four Corners told us they were well aware of that, but that:

It is a matter of logic that this does not exclude the use of another white car, registered or unregistered, owned, stolen or borrowed. Mr Ranse told police he had had other cars. — Email from Sue Spencer (Executive Producer, Four Corners) to Media Watch, 30th April, 2009

Maybe so. But if viewers were to be shown Albert Ranse's secretly-taped rambling, didn't they have a right to know something as relevant as that?

'The Newman Case' was the kind of arduous investigation that few media organisations have the resources to undertake. And I think it's important that journalists should at times re-examine the work of the courts.

In this case Mr Patten said:

...nothing in the matters raised...casts doubt upon, or raises, a sense of unease or disquiet in respect of the conviction of Mr Ngo. — Patten Inquiry into the conviction of Phuong Ngo, General Conclusion, 14th April, 2009

The Four Corners team argues that that doesn't in itself invalidate its program, as it wrote last Saturday to the Sydney Morning Herald:

Several key issues raised by Four Corners were not dealt with by the inquiry, nor were witnesses central to the Four Corners program called to give evidence. — The Sydney Morning Herald, Letters page, 2nd May, 2009

But at the heart of investigative programs like this one are innumerable decisions about what to leave in, and what to leave out - decisions that have to strive for fairness. I don't pretend they're easy. But I have to say, in the instances we've singled out, that in my opinion Four Corners judgments don't stack up.

For full responses from Four Corners, the police, and much more, visit our website.

A rather sombre twentieth anniversary program, I'm afraid. But there'll be plenty of laughs on Thursday night in our celebratory doco, 20 Years of Media Watch - Stuff Ups, Beat-ups and Barneys.


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