Chapter 4 - The Report of Children
Overboard: Dissemination and Early Doubts
As discussed in the previous
chapter, the report that a child or children had been thrown overboard from
SIEV 4 originated in the telephone conversation between Commander Banks and Brigadier Silverstone on the morning of Sunday 7 October 2001.
At about 11.15am (AEST) on the
same day, that report was made public by Mr Philip Ruddock, Minister for
Immigration and Multicultural Affairs, during the course of a press conference. As Ms Jennifer Bryant remarked
in her report:
In total, only around four hours elapsed between the
commencement of boarding [of SIEV 04 by HMAS Adelaide] and
reports [of children thrown overboard] being made public in the media.
In this chapter, the Committee
first discusses how an oral and uncorroborated report made in the midst of a
complex tactical operation came to be disseminated so quickly and so widely.
The Committee then outlines how doubts concerning the veracity of the report
arose in the Defence chain of command, and the point at which different
elements in that chain reached the conclusion that the incident had not
occurred. Finally, the Committee discusses how photographs taken of the sinking
of SIEV 4 on 8 October came to be publicly misrepresented as being photographs
of the ‘children overboard’ event.
In the following chapter, the
Committee will consider the role played by a range of agencies and individuals
in relation to attempts to correct the original and mistaken report that
children had been thrown overboard.
The mechanics of the public
dissemination of the report that a child or children had been thrown overboard
from SIEV 4 were as follows:
report originates from a telephone conversation
between Commander Banks and Brigadier Silverstone early in the morning of 7
Brigadier Silverstone immediately transmits the
report by telephone to Air Vice Marshal Titheridge and to Rear Admiral Smith
very shortly afterwards;
Rear Admiral Smith passes the report by telephone
to Rear Admiral Chris Ritchie, Commander Australian Theatre (COMAST) within
minutes of Brigadier Silverstone’s call to him;
by 9.30am (AEST), Air Vice Marshal Titheridge reports
the news by telephone to Ms Jane Halton, then Chair of the People Smuggling
Taskforce (PST) in the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet (PM &
C), and also to Mr Peter Hendy, chief of staff to Mr Peter Reith, then Minister
for Defence, and to the Chief of Defence Force, Admiral Chris Barrie;
Ms Halton conveys the report verbally to members
of the PST who were present at a meeting on the morning of Sunday 7 October;
at 9.51am, Mr Bill Farmer, Secretary of the then
Department of Immigration and Multicultural Affairs, is rung by his Minister,
Mr Philip Ruddock, at the PST meeting.
Mr Farmer tells Mr Ruddock that members of the PST had just had advice that,
among other things, passengers on SIEV 4 were ‘throwing children overboard’;
at 11.15am, Mr Ruddock, who was at a public
forum speaking about other aspects of the government’s policy in relation to
asylum seekers, passes on that information to the press;
Mr Ruddock telephones Mr Reith and the Prime
Minister from a car on the way to the airport at 12.30pm, advising them of the
report that children had been thrown into the water from SIEV 4;
later in the day, Rear Admiral Smith mentions
the report to Dr Brendan Nelson, Parliamentary Secretary for Defence, in the
course of a discussion on board HMAS Manoora;
an options paper prepared for the Prime Minister
during the day, and authorised by members of the PST at an evening meeting on
Sunday 7 October, states that attempts by the HMAS Adelaide to deter SIEV 4 have been ‘met with attempts to disable
the vessel, passengers jumping into the sea and passengers throwing their children
into the sea’.
While these facts concerning
the dissemination and publication of the initial report that children had been
thrown overboard are relatively well established, there are two matters raised
by them which have yet to be fully explained. They are, first, the reasons for
Brigadier Silverstone’s early morning telephone call to Air Vice Marshal
Titheridge, and second, the media’s prior knowledge of SIEV 4’s interception.
The Committee will discuss these matters in turn.
Update for Air Vice Marshal
As was noted in the previous
chapter, Brigadier Silverstone was instructed by Rear Admiral Smith on the
evening of 6 October to telephone Air Vice Marshal Titheridge at 8.00am (AEST)
on 7 October 2001 with the very latest information about SIEV 4. This was an unusual or ‘special’
arrangement, which was not repeated for any other SIEV incident.
As Brigadier Silverstone said,
this requirement caused him to interrupt Commander Banks at a time when he
would not otherwise have done so. He told the Committee:
I think that, from my perspective, if it had not been for the
requirement to provide this information to Air Vice Marshal Titheridge for the
IDC [interdepartmental committee], or whoever was going to use that
information, I would not have called Commander Banks or spoken to Commander
Banks at 7.20 on that day. It is my pronounced practice, pronounced in terms of
my policy, that I do not ring my staff and the various COs working for me -
indeed, it is my actual practice - when they are in the middle of boarding
operations. I do not ring them when they are dealing with crises. I rely on
them sending the op reps [operation reports], and I remain available to them at
all hours to answer questions on issues of concern. That is my practice, but on
this particular morning, because of the requirement to pass this information to
Air Vice Marshal Titheridge and because we had become more imbued with a sense
of providing information to government as it requires, we did this.
Brigadier Silverstone noted that,
had he relied as he normally did only upon the formal op rep signal traffic,
the so-called ‘children overboard’ issue would never have arisen.
Given both the singularity and
the effect of this instruction to Brigadier Silverstone to brief Air Vice Marshal
Titheridge directly, the Committee sought to establish what had generated the
requirement in the first place. It was, however, unable to satisfy itself fully
about the matter.
Brigadier Silverstone advised
the Committee that when Rear Admiral Smith was giving him the directive to ring
Air Vice Marshal Titheridge, ‘he [Smith] mentioned that it was to do with the
Treasurer appearing on current affairs programs that [Sunday] morning’. Brigadier Silverstone also said that
he ‘formed the view that it flowed from the requirements of the IDC’.
Rear Admiral Smith, however,
informed the Committee that he had been told that it was the then Minister for
Defence, Mr Reith, who required the latest information from Air Vice Marshal
Titheridge. Characterising how the arrangement came about, he said:
I had a call from Admiral Ritchie on the Saturday evening at
about 9.30pm, explaining to me that our minister was due to appear on a
television show on the Sunday morning, and I just assumed that to be the Sunday program or something. He had
agreed with Air Vice Marshal Titheridge that he, Titheridge, should be rung at
eight o’clock eastern standard time to be updated on the events that had
occurred given that we were already in contact with this SIEV, and Brigadier Silverstone
was to do that.
This account was corroborated
by Rear Admiral Ritchie, who recalled that Air Vice Marshal Titheridge had rung
and suggested that he had to brief - or had been requested to
brief - the minister on the Sunday morning on what was going on with SIEV 4 and
asked if it would be okay if he spoke directly to Silverstone in order to cut
out the middleman, if you like, on that one - and that one only - particular
occasion. I agreed with that and asked Admiral Smith to arrange it.
Air Vice Marshal Titheridge
could not recall with certainty who had spoken to him requesting the Sunday
morning brief, but told the Committee that the ‘request itself I believe
emanated from the minister’s [ie. Mr Reith’s] office’.
As noted earlier, Air Vice Marshal
Titheridge’s telephone records indicate that he spoke to Ms Halton, Mr Peter
Hendy, chief of staff to Minister Reith, and Admiral Barrie shortly after
speaking to Brigadier Silverstone. There is no record, nor did the Air Vice
Marshal have any recollection, of conveying the update on SIEV 4 to the
On the basis of this evidence,
therefore, the Committee considers that the special arrangement for Brigadier
Silverstone to telephone Air Vice Marshal Titheridge on Sunday 7 October was
made in order to supply Mr Reith, and possibly the PST, with the latest
information on SIEV 4. The Committee was unable, however, to establish exactly
why that information was required at that particular time.
Questioned about this issue,
Air Vice Marshal Titheridge said that: ‘My recollection is that it may have had
something to do with a media appearance, but I cannot help you any more than
There was, however, no media
appearance by the Minister for Defence on that Sunday morning and his records
indicate that Air Vice Marshal Titheridge did not contact Mr Reith directly
until 1.51pm in the afternoon. The
Treasurer did appear on the Sunday
program on the morning of 7 October, but did not speak about SIEV 4.
Media prior knowledge of SIEV 4
There is no indication that the
report that children had been thrown overboard from SIEV 4 would have been
published in the media as an immediate consequence of the telephone calls made
by Air Vice Marshal Titheridge early on 7 October 2001.
The report was in fact passed to
the media by the Minister for Immigration and Multicultural Affairs, Mr
Ruddock, who learned of it almost accidentally. That is, he learned of it by
way of an unscheduled telephone call to his departmental secretary, who passed
on the advice he had just been given at the PST meeting.
Mr Ruddock was in Sydney to
address a public meeting on the subject of the government’s ‘border protection’
legislation. An unexpectedly large
media contingent was present because, as Mr Ruddock and his officers learned,
there had been a report on the ABC news early that morning that a vessel had
been intercepted the previous night. Anticipating that there would be questions
from the media about the interception, Mr Ruddock called Mr Farmer to find out
the latest information.
In other words, the fact that
the media already knew about the interception of SIEV 4 created pressure for
further detailed information to be made public. But, as Ms Halton
testified, the fact that the media had been told about the interception by this
stage was unusual and contrary to previous practice.
Ms Halton advised the Committee
that she knew that information about
the interception of SIEV 4 had appeared in the public arena on the morning of 7
October, but that she did not know how
it had. She explained:
I should say that my knowledge at that point of where that
information had come from was nonexistent. I knew there was a vessel. I was not
aware that that information had been released to anybody. The general habit had
been not to comment on operational details while operations were in train. I
was a bit surprised that the detail of that vessel seemed to be in the public
The Committee received no
further information concerning how or why the news of the interception of SIEV
4 was already in the public domain by early in the morning of 7 October 2001.
The Committee notes a further
unusual feature of the handling of SIEV 4. This was the ‘heated’ conversation between Admiral Barrie
and the Secretary of PM & C, Mr Max Moore-Wilton, concerning where the
rescued passengers of SIEV 4 were to be taken after their boat had sunk.
Admiral Barrie told the Committee that soon after he had been advised, on 8
October, that SIEV 4 was sinking, he had had a telephone conversation with Mr
Moore-Wilton. The latter, said Admiral Barrie:
told me to make sure that everyone rescued went on board HMAS Adelaide. I said to him that we could
not guarantee that and safety of life was to be the paramount consideration. In
this emergency, if people had to be rescued and landed at Christmas Island that
would have to happen. The CO had already called for urgent assistance from the
island from whatever assets were available. It was for the commander of the Adelaide to make the call.
Admiral Barrie informed the
Committee that he had then immediately telephoned Minister Reith and told him
of the conversation, and been assured by the Minister that his approach was
appropriate. Elaborating on his reasons for informing the Minister of his
discussion with the Secretary of PM & C, Admiral Barrie said that:
I did want the minister to understand that there was this view,
if you like, that somehow or another we were in absolute control of where
people would end up, even though they were all in the water. I just wanted the
minister to be quite aware that we were not able to guarantee any of those
sorts of results.
The sequence of ‘unusual’
features surrounding the treatment of SIEV 4 - the leaking of the fact of SIEV
4’s interception to the media, the ‘special’ arrangement for Air Vice Marshal
Titheridge to contact Brigadier Silverstone directly for the latest news, and
Mr Moore-Wilton’s ‘heated’ insistence that the SIEV’s passengers not be landed
on Christmas Island - all point to the likelihood that the Government had
decided to make an example of SIEV 4.
SIEV 4 was the first boat to be
intercepted after the announcement of the Federal Election. Its handling was to
be a public show of the Government’s strength on the border protection issue,
and the behaviour of the unauthorised arrivals a public justification for the
policy. It is in this context that one might best understand why the Secretary
of PM & C wanted to ensure that the asylum seekers concerned not set foot
on Australian territory. It is perhaps also in this context that it is possible
to understand why it was so politically difficult for the Government to correct
or retract claims made in relation to the passengers aboard SIEV 4 once they
were known or suspected to be false.
A number of witnesses commented
unfavourably on the haste with which the report that children had been thrown
into the sea from SIEV 4 was passed from Defence personnel, to the broader
public service and Ministers, and out into the public domain. Major General
Powell’s report notes that the mistaken reporting ‘was a direct result of the
conflicting balance between the provision of timely information versus accurate information’, and that:
The risks of passing information outside established formal
lines of communication to achieve the time demands of a given Government
imperative must be clearly understood by the provider and the recipient of that
Brigadier Silverstone remarked
that the episode ‘reinforces the risks of making public the details of
developing tactical situations, especially when the operational chain of
command and formal reporting processes are bypassed’, and expressed the view that ‘it is
inappropriate for those not in the direct military chain of command to make
comment or report on the emerging details of current operational events to the
media or any other source’.
In a similar if more colourful
vein, a former Chief of Navy, Vice Admiral Sir Richard Peek, exclaimed:
[I]n the proper chain of command, the captain of Adelaide sent a signal, as I understood
it, giving the details of what happened. For somebody to suggest that the
initial process of telephone calls, when the radio was available for an
official report, and the initial report had been demanded because some clot in
Canberra wanted to talk on a television station - God, it makes me speechless!
Somewhat by way of contrast to
these remarks, however, Rear Admiral Ritchie wrote of the issue in the
It will be argued that this incident demonstrates the danger of
putting too much credibility in initial and unsubstantiated reports from the
scene of action, and so to an extent it does. This view is not entirely
relevant to this sequence of events however because, in this case, the
information released in the heat of the moment was thought to be genuine and
remained so for three days. There was no reason not to inform Ministers and
Senior Officers, as was done. Once that information has been passed, Defence
has little control over its further dissemination.
Rear Admiral Ritchie’s point is
Any failing on Defence’s part is not in how the information was
managed or passed in the first instance [but] rather, in the process for
refuting the information when it was found to be false.
In the next section, the
Committee discusses how doubts concerning the veracity of the report began to
surface within the Defence chain of command, and the point at which different
elements in that chain reached the conclusion that the incident had not
occurred. In the light of that discussion, the next chapter provides a comprehensive
account of the adequacy of the ‘process for refuting the information’.
Doubts and the Search for
The report that children had
been thrown overboard from SIEV 4 excited immediate and extensive media
coverage and political commentary. Aware of this public interest in the matter,
Brigadier Silverstone and Rear Admiral Smith each became concerned when in the
days following the initial report they saw no written confirmation of it in the
In his statement to the Powell
inquiry, Brigadier Silverstone recorded that:
It was not until either 8 or 9 Oct[ober], when viewing the media
coverage of the child overboard incident, that I could not recall seeing any
written reporting of this incident. On Tue[sday] 9 Oct[ober], following the
sinking of SIEV 04, I directed a review of Adelaide’s
Opreps and confirmed that no written advice of the incident existed.
Subsequently, I directed CO Adelaide
to gather statements from those involved in order to confirm whether or not a
child had been thrown overboard. At about this time I discussed my concerns and
intentions with NCC AST [Naval Component Commander Australian Theatre] and
On that same day, 9 October
2001, Rear Admiral Smith independently contacted Commander Banks about the same
issue. He told the Committee that:
I was very much aware of the media coverage that this incident
had been receiving. I was becoming quite concerned that none of the operational
reports that had come to me through the JTF commander at any time contained information
saying that a child had been thrown overboard. I had been briefed by Brigadier
Silverstone that there was a difference of view between himself and Commander
Banks. That concerned me. So I took the unusual step of contacting Commander
Banks direct on 9 October and I asked him for his account of what had occurred
and what evidence he had to support the allegation of a child being thrown in
the water. In that telephone call, he advised me that he himself had not seen
such an event, that he had heard a number of his ship’s company indicate that
they had seen the event occur. I told him to get out there, to interview his
people and to determine, once and for all, did this incident occur or not. That
was on Tuesday morning.
Rear Admiral Smith then said
that he had rung Rear Admiral Ritchie, telling him that he ‘had serious
concerns as to our ability to prove that this incident had in fact occurred’.
Potential sources of
On 9 October, it seemed that
there were three sources from which evidence to support the report that a child
had been thrown overboard might emerge. They were:
Commander Banks’s eyewitness account;
witness statements from the Adelaide’s crew; and
Electro Optical Tracking System (EOTS) recording
The Committee questioned naval
witnesses extensively about each of these sources. It wished to assure itself,
not only that the witnesses themselves considered that there was no evidence to
support the initial report, but also of the basis upon which they did so. In
other words, the Committee wished to make its own assessment of the evidence on
the basis of which the judgement was reached by Commander Banks and
subsequently by others in the naval chain of command that children had not been
thrown overboard. The Committee considers this evidence below.
Commander Banks’s eyewitness
Commander Banks testified that
it was only when Brigadier Silverstone rang him on 9 October that he realised
that they had different recollections of their conversation on 7 October 2001.
In particular, he said that it was only then that he realised that Brigadier
Silverstone had reported him as saying that a child had been thrown overboard. These differences were rehearsed in
detail in the previous chapter.
Brigadier Silverstone accepted
that Commander Banks did not recollect saying that a child had gone over the
side of SIEV 4 and was not a witness to such an event.
Brigadier Silverstone said,
however, that on 9 October and early on 10 October, Commander Banks
still considered the report credible. That is, he still considered it possible
that the incident had occurred and that other sailors may have witnessed it
although he had not.
In support of this view,
Brigadier Silverstone recalled a conversation with Commander Banks early in the
morning on 10 October,
in which he indicated that no one as yet could confirm that a
child had been recovered from the water. However, he said that he was still
waiting to question someone who had been on the far side of the SIEV, away from
Adelaide’s position at the time of
the incident. Neither at this point, nor at any earlier stage, did he suggest
that a child had not been thrown in the water.
The Committee notes that this
evidence is consistent with the fact that on 7 October there were reports
from at least some crew members that they thought they had seen children in the
Later on the morning of 10
October, however, according to notes in Brigadier Silverstone’s notebook,
Commander Banks reported ‘that it was apparent to him that no children had been
thrown in the water’.
Commander Banks’s own evidence
was equivocal as to the time at which he ceased to deem the report credible.
At one point, Commander Banks
suggested that he had been ‘adamant’ since some time during 7 October 2001 that
no children had been thrown in the water.
His certainty, he said, was based on his knowledge that those recovered from
the water ‘were all male and that none were children’.
Elsewhere, however, Commander
Banks indicated that it took longer for him to be sure of this fact. He said:
I believe that by the 11th, certainly in my mind, the
evidence was clear that no children had been thrown overboard. I had provided a
statement that said that, and there were other statements, which I subsequently
read, that confirmed that.
The statement that Commander
Banks prepared on 11 October reveals the difficulty of attaining certainty
under the circumstances. It reads, in part:
I have since been questioned repeatedly about this event (and to
a lesser extent others) and I am now so full of conflicting information of what
was seen and heard by others and me, and stated by others and me that it is
difficult to recall with absolute veracity.
The Committee notes, however,
that Commander Banks has never equivocated about the fact that he himself did
not see a child thrown overboard. He continued on from the paragraph quoted
Nevertheless I am prepared to attest to what I saw. For the
record quote I saw a child held over the side by a man. I did not see any
children in the water. I did see 13 UBAs [unauthorised boat arrivals]
voluntarily enter the water from the SIEV and watched their subsequent
recovery. I advised CJTF 639 that this had happened and that I could see a man
threatening to put a child over the side. I advised that there had been no loss
of life. I signalled ashore that SUNCs were making threats to jump overboard
and some had done so and that some had been thrown overboard unquote.
Any evidence in support of the
initial report, then, had to be found in witness statements from the crew or in
the EOTS film.
Witness statements from crew
Following his conversations
with Brigadier Silverstone and Rear Admiral Smith on 9 October, Commander Banks
called on members of his crew involved with, or having a recollection of, the
man overboard incidents of 7 October 2001 to contact the ship’s coxswain and
provide written information. In
response to this call, sixteen crew members made sworn statements on 10 October
Of these, one statement, made
by Able Seaman Wade Gerrits, provides support for the report that a child
entered the water. Able Seaman Gerrits, who was on the bridge operating EOTS at
the relevant time, stated that he saw SUNCs jumping from the SIEV and that ‘I
believe one child also went overboard’.
He went on to say, however,
All persons who dove overboard did so by there [sic] own accord
and were all wearing life jackets. All personal [sic] were also recovered by Adelaide’s seaboats and returned to the
Thus, even if Able Seaman
Gerrits’s statement can be said to provide support for the claim that a child
was in the water, it does not support the claim that a child was thrown into the water.
Of the remaining fifteen
statements, ten state specifically either that no children were witnessed in
the water or that no one was witnessed being thrown overboard. Five statements do not explicitly
indicate that children were not in the water, but provide no evidence to
support the report.
The majority of statements
report an incident of a child held up to or over the side, but are unanimous in
saying that this child was not thrown overboard. Seven of the statements report
that one of those who jumped overboard voluntarily was a teenaged boy. It is
possible that this is the ‘child’ referred to by Able Seaman Gerrits, since
this would account for him saying both that he believed a child went overboard
and that all those who went overboard did so of their own accord.
In short, the witness
statements provided by the crew of HMAS Adelaide
provide no evidentiary support for the report that children had been thrown
On 10 October 2001, Commander
Banks produced a ‘chronological review of the EOTS video footage’. The EOTS tapes themselves were
despatched to Rear Admiral Smith at Maritime Command on Sunday 14 October. A
copy had earlier been transferred to the Australian Federal Police at Christmas
Commander Banks told Rear
Admiral Smith on 10 October that there was no evidence on the EOTS footage
‘that children had been thrown overboard’.
Although, Rear Admiral Smith’s
statement to Ms Bryant indicates that he did not recall having seen the EOTS
transcript at that time, Rear
Admiral Ritchie recorded some details about the EOTS footage on 10 October,
which he believed had come from a conversation between Rear Admiral Smith and
Commander Banks. These details were:
no children shown being thrown overboard;
one child held over the side;
people jumping of their own volition; and
one 13 year old pushed over.
By late on 10 October, therefore,
it had become apparent that there was to be no evidence forthcoming from
Commander Banks, his crew or from the EOTS footage that could support the
report that a child had been thrown overboard.
The following time line
summarises how this knowledge progressed up the relevant chain of command
between 9 and 11 October 2001.
Knowledge in the chain of
9 October 2001
Brigadier Silverstone and Rear Admiral Smith ask
Commander Banks to provide any information which would confirm or corroborate
the report that a child had been thrown overboard from SIEV 4.
Commander Banks calls on those with knowledge of
the man overboard incidents on 7 October to make statements to the ship’s
10 October 2001, early
Commander Banks tells Brigadier Silverstone that
no one could yet confirm that a child had been recovered from the water.
According to Brigadier Silverstone, however, Commander Banks notes that he is
still waiting to question someone who had been on the far side of the SIEV,
away from the Adelaide’s position, at
the time of the incident.
Strategic Command tells Rear Admiral Ritchie
that they hold no evidence of children being thrown overboard, prompting the
question ‘were they?’
Rear Admiral Ritchie speaks to Rear Admiral
Smith, who advises him that the Electro Optical film shows no children being
thrown overboard, but that,
according to CO Adelaide, there may
yet be witness statements from sailors on the disengaged side to support the
initial report. Rear Admiral Ritchie advises Mr Mike Scrafton, Military Adviser
to the Minister for Defence, accordingly.
10 October, later
Sixteen sworn statements are taken from members
of the Adelaide’s company. Able Seaman Wade Gerrits states that
he saw SUNCs jumping from the SIEV and that ‘I believe one child also went
overboard’. He goes on to say that: ‘All persons who dove overboard did so by
there [sic] own accord and were all wearing life jackets. All personal [sic]
were also recovered by Adelaide’s
seaboats and returned to the SIEV’.
No other crew member’s statement indicates that a child went or was thrown
overboard, although a number mention that a teenaged boy jumped of his own
Commander Banks tells both Rear Admiral Smith
and Brigadier Silverstone that no children had been thrown in the water.
Rear Admiral Smith directs Commander Banks to
produce a chronology of events and to signal that to him as a personal message.
According to Rear Admiral Smith, he rings Rear
Admiral Ritchie immediately following his conversation with Commander Banks, telling
him that he [Smith] is now convinced that the incident had never occurred.
According to Rear Admiral Smith, Rear Admiral
Ritchie advises him that he will relay that same information to Admiral Barrie,
Chief of Defence Force, and rings back to confirm that he has done so.
Commander Banks’s signal chronology arrives at
Rear Admiral Smith’s headquarters.
Commander Banks commences writing his own
statement, as directed by Brigadier Silverstone, and subsequently forwards it
by signal to Brigadier Silverstone and Rear Admiral Smith.
Commander Banks forwards copies of his crew’s
statements by email to Rear Admiral Smith and to Brigadier Silverstone.
Brigadier Silverstone forwards those crew
statements with his own covering remarks to Rear Admirals Smith and Ritchie in
an email dated 11 October 01 (13:45). He also discusses the contents of the
email with Rear Admiral Ritchie on the same day.
Rear Admiral Ritchie sees the statements from
the Adelaide’s crew and concludes
that no children were thrown overboard.
Rear Admiral Ritchie believes that, in
accordance with his usual practice, he would have briefed Air Vice Marshal
(AVM) Titheridge that there is no evidence to support the claim that children
have been thrown overboard.
Rear Admiral Ritchie briefs Admiral Barrie,
telling him that there is no evidentiary support for claims that children had
been thrown overboard. There is
disagreement between Rear Admiral Ritchie and Admiral Barrie over how
categorical was the former’s advice that it had been established that children
were not thrown overboard. This matter is discussed in more detail in following
The developing understanding of
the absence of evidence which would support the report of a child thrown
overboard was well summarised by Rear Admiral Ritchie. In his statement to the
Powell inquiry, he said:
My overriding recollection of these events is that up until 10
or 11 Oct[ober] 01, all in the command chain believed that a child had been
thrown overboard. By the 10 Oct[ober] 01 we knew it was not supported by the
video, but believed other sailors on the disengaged side had seen such events.
By the 11 Oct[ober] we knew that no such witnesses were forthcoming.
In the following chapter, the
Committee discusses what happened to that information after 11 October 2001.
Before it turns to that matter, however, the Committee discusses the
photographs disseminated from HMAS Adelaide.
In particular, the Committee is
concerned with the question of how photographs taken during the sinking of SIEV
4 on 8 October came to be publicly misrepresented as evidence of children
overboard on 7 October 2001.
During the period of HMAS Adelaide’s engagement with SIEV 4, from
6 to 10 October 2001, 420 digital photographs were taken. These photographs were taken by two
crew members, Petty Officer J.A. Nixon and Leading Seaman D.K. Blanchard, at
the direction of Commander Banks.
Of these 420 photographs, two
have become notorious. They are the photographs of Able Seaman Laura Whittle and
Leading Seaman Cook Jason Barker, taken during the rescue of passengers of SIEV
4 while the boat was sinking on 8 October, but
published in the media as evidence of the rescue of children thrown into the
water on 7 October 2001.
In what follows, the Committee
discusses, first, how these two photographs came to be released to the media as
evidence that children were thrown overboard on 7 October, and second, when
officers in the relevant Defence chain of command knew that the photographs
were being misrepresented. The question of the efforts made to correct the
record in relation to the photographs is addressed in the next chapter.
Release of photographs
Early in the morning on 9
October, Commander Banks sent the two photographs by email to ten addressees in
Defence. The first photograph was
saved as ‘laura the hero’ and was attached to the email under the words
‘Whittle “COURAGE”’. The accompanying text stated:
ABBM Laura Whittle was recently photographed as the Navy Value
‘COURAGE’. During the 08 Oct rescue of 223 SUNCs from a sinking Indonesian
fishing vessel, Able Seaman Laura Whittle again typified this true quality
through her immense courage in leaping 12 metres from the ship’s 02 deck into
the water to drag women and children to the safety of a liferaft. Selflessly
she entered the water without a lifejacket and without regard for her own
safety to help others in need.
The second photograph was saved
as ‘dogs and his family’ and was attached to the email under the words ‘Barker
“COURAGE and DETERMINATION”’. The accompanying text said:
LSCK Jason ‘Dogs’ Barker shows dogged determination as he helped
rescue women and children by dragging them to safety during the rescue of 223
SUNCs from a sinking Indonesian fishing vessel. This big hearted Leading Seaman
also demonstrated Navy’s core value of COURAGE.
Knowledge that the photographs
existed became public when Commander Banks gave an unauthorised interview to
Channel 10 on 9 October. The
Commander spoke of the rescue on 8 October and of his pride in his crew, and
mentioned that he had sent photographs of the rescue to Defence headquarters. Channel 10 then called Mr Tim
Bloomfield, Director of Media Liaison (DML) seeking copies of those
Mr Bloomfield immediately
advised the Minister’s media adviser, Mr Ross Hampton, and relevant personnel
in Defence that the interview had occurred, and began seeking copies of the
photographs. These he subsequently
received from Lieutenant Andrew Herring (Fleet Public Affairs Officer -
Sydney), on Defence’s secret email system, and from Mr John Clarke, Strategic
Communications Adviser to Chief of Navy (CN), on the restricted email system.
In his Minute of 11 October
2001 to Head Public Affairs and Corporate Communication (HPACC), Mr Bloomfield
indicated that both sets of photographs that he received had the accompanying
text, or captions, attached.
Confirming this evidence, Mr Clarke’s statement to the Powell inquiry gave no
indication that the photographs he sent to Mr Bloomfield were unaccompanied by
captions. However, Mr Bloomfield’s
evidence to the Bryant inquiry was less sure on this point. He said that ‘he
was “pretty sure” both the emails he received with the photographs included the
explanatory text. He was clear that Lieutenant Herring’s did, but he was a
little less certain about the copy from Mr Clarke’.
However, Mr Bloomfield was
never in doubt about what the photographs depicted and said that he was
focusing on the possibility of using them for a ‘good news’ story about the
Navy. His main concerns related to
the quality of the pictures, to the fact that ‘they could have been taken
anywhere’, and whether it would be permissible to show the faces of naval
personnel and/or of the persons being rescued.
Mr Bloomfield advised Mr
Hampton on the same afternoon, 9 October 2001, that he had received the
photographs, describing them, he said, as ‘UBA’s [unauthorised boat arrivals]
in the water’, but not ‘very good shots’.
The key factor in the eventual
misrepresentation of the photographs was the detachment of the captions from
their respective images. A detailed account of how the photographs were
transmitted to the media on 10 October 2001 without their explanatory text is
provided in the Bryant Report. The Committee took little new evidence on this question.
In what follows, therefore, the
Committee highlights three main elements which contributed to the public
misrepresentation of the photographs. They were:
pressure for urgent clearance of photographs;
The Defence email system has
two levels. There is the secret system, to which not all Defence personnel have
access, and the restricted system, which is used for unclassified information.
The photographs were sent from
the Adelaide on the secret system.
They were copied, together with their accompanying text, onto the restricted
system by Commander Piers Chatterton, Director Operations at Naval
Headquarters. He had assessed that they contained nothing of a classified
nature and that they depicted a ‘good news’ story which should be available to
public affairs personnel.
Although it is not entirely
clear just who had copies of the photographs on which system and at which time,
part of the explanation for the detachment of the text from the photographs
lies in the difficulties experienced by various officers in opening the files
on their desktops.
For example, when Mr Hampton
asked Mr Bloomfield to send him the photographs on the afternoon of 9 October,
Mr Bloomfield could not open the relevant files on his secret system. He asked
another PACC officer, Mr Andrew Stackpool, urgently to send across the copies
that he had received on the restricted system. But, as it turned out, Mr
Stackpool had had to save the photographs onto his desktop in order to open
them, which meant that they were saved as ‘jpg’ files with no explanatory text
Mr Stackpool stated that he
would most likely have created a new email and attached the saved copies of the
photographs from his desktop. This would mean that the photographs went to Mr
Hampton without explanatory text.
Mr Stackpool said that at the time he was not aware of the significance of the
explanatory text, and that the ‘issue was to ensure that the photographs were
provided to the Minister’s Office as quickly as possible’.
On the following day, Mr
Hampton was having his own ‘computer problems’ and asked Mr Bloomfield to
forward copies of the photographs to the Departmental Liaison Officer (DLO), Ms
Liesa Davies, in the Minister’s Canberra office (Mr Hampton and the Minister
were in Melbourne). Again they
were sent without the explanatory text.
This time, according to Mr
Bloomfield, the captions were left off at Mr Hampton’s request. Mr Hampton does
not recall talking about the captions at this time. As he pointed out, however, he had
not seen the explanatory text and would have assumed that, by captions, Mr
Bloomfield meant simply the labels or titles which they had mutually decided
were inappropriate and could identify the sailors involved.
The same explanation accounts,
according to Mr Hampton, for his direction that only the photographs, without
captions, be provided to the media on the afternoon of 10 October 2001.
Pressure for urgent clearance
The backdrop to the public
release of the photographs on 10 October was the media pressure on the
government to produce evidence supporting the claim that children had been
thrown overboard. For example, Mr Hampton told Ms Bryant that:
I recall mentioning to Mr Bloomfield that the Prime Minister had
been asked a number of questions at his morning media conference about the
‘Throwing overboard incident’ and if we had photos available we’d better move
quickly to get them cleared for release.
Indeed, Mr Hampton said that he
had only moved to release the photographs following ‘a phone call from Mr
O’Leary in the Prime Minister’s office’.
This backdrop appears to have
led the Minister to seek immediate authority to release the photographs from
the Chief of Defence Force, rather than to go back through the official Defence
clearance process. It also appears
to have led Mr Hampton to neglect or downplay the concern expressed by
Brigadier Bornholt, Military Adviser, PACC, that the photographs might not
depict the events of 7 October at all.
The Minister sought CDF’s
clearance to release the photographs to the media during the afternoon of 10
October 2001. Admiral Barrie asked
Air Vice Marshal Titheridge to ‘screen the photographs for operational
sensitivities and to advise the Minister’s office’. Air Vice Marshal Titheridge called
the Minister five minutes later and approved the release. Neither Admiral Barrie nor Air Vice
Marshal Titheridge had copies of the photographs available to them at the time,
and were focused on the issues of operational security and the privacy of
Defence personnel rather than on the correct attribution of the photographs
Following that approval,
however, Mr Bloomfield was asked to provide the photographs (without captions)
to the Minister’s Canberra office on 10 October ‘under considerable pressure
from Ministerial staff in the Minister’s Office at 1444 [2.44pm] where they
were immediately made available by Ministerial Staff to members of the
Parliamentary Press Gallery’.
Subsequently he was asked to provide them to the media upon request, again
Mr Bloomfield noted that, had
the photographs been released through Defence, then they would have been
cleared through the appropriate authority. He emphasised that: ‘Had I been
asked to clear the pictures for release I would have sought clearance from
Brigadier Bornholt. I was not asked for such clearance’.
According to Admiral Barrie,
the clearance procedure broke down
when Ministerial staff directly approached Public Affairs and
Corporate Communication media room staff in an effort to obtain the photographs
rather than going through Ms McKenry and Brigadier Bornholt.
Despite this, Brigadier
Bornholt, who was the releasing authority for images from Operation Relex, did
become aware during the afternoon of 10 October that the Minister’s office was
seeking to release photographs of the SIEV 4 incident.
Mr Hampton had contacted the
Brigadier’s Staff Officer, Captain Belinda Byrne, early in the afternoon of 10
October seeking information about how many children were among the 14
manoverboards from SIEV 4. Captain
Byrne had in turn sought the information from Strategic Command, but was told
by the watchkeeper that he had been unable to find any report which confirmed
that children had gone overboard. When Captain Byrne relayed this information
to Mr Hampton, she said, he ‘was agitated and told her that there were photos
of children in the water’.
Following this conversation, at
about 3.30pm on 10 October, Captain Byrne asked Brigadier Bornholt whether he
knew of such photographs. He did
not, but he knew from Strategic Command that they could find no evidence of
children in the water on 7 October. Brigadier Bornholt subsequently obtained
copies of the photographs and their explanatory text from Strategic Command,
noting that they ‘clearly described the events as having occurred on 8 Oct 01’.
Brigadier Bornholt telephoned
Mr Hampton twice during the afternoon of 10 October, at about 3.45pm and
4.45pm. According to his statements to both the Powell and Bryant inquiries,
the Brigadier thought that he had copies of the two photographs together with
their accompanying text when he first spoke to Mr Hampton. However, as Ms
Bryant noted, he spoke only of the fact that there was no evidence for children
in the water and not of the captions, which indicates that he had not seen them
at that time.
This supposition is
corroborated by Mr Hampton’s diary notes of that first conversation, which
record that Brigadier Bornholt spoke of four photographs, not two: ‘different
set of photos - OK’. It is further
corroborated by the fact that, when Mr Hampton told him that the CDF had
provided the photographs for release and confirmed that they were of 7 October,
the Brigadier began to seek additional clarification of the issue.
However, it is clear that
Brigadier Bornholt did raise questions about whether the photographs were
correctly connected to the events of 7 October.
Mr Hampton, according to
Brigadier Bornholt, ‘was irate at his news’
and told him that the ‘MINDEF was doing a 1630hrs doorstop and the photographs
would be released’. Brigadier Bornholt said that he ‘advised that there
remained a question as to their veracity’.
Even if, then, neither Mr
Hampton nor the Minister had received definitive advice that the photographs
were incorrectly attributed prior to the Minister speaking publicly of them and
formally releasing them as evidence of the ‘children overboard’ incident,
questions had been raised both about them and about whether, on 7 October, there
were children in the water at all.
In the Committee’s view, the
pressure to produce evidence to corroborate the report of children overboard
seems to have propelled the Minister and Mr Hampton into releasing material
over which at least some doubts had been cast. It is arguable that, prior to
the release, the doubts expressed were not terribly strong and were themselves
liable to doubt and amenable to rationalisation. However, had the focus been on
the need to be certain about the
evidence, rather than on the need simply to produce
evidence, then it seems that it should have been possible to wait for full
The final contributor to the
public misrepresentation of the photographs was a series of miscommunications
between the Minister’s office and Defence personnel.
Two of these have already been
mentioned, namely, the confusion between Mr Bloomfield and Mr Hampton over what
constituted the ‘captions’ to the photographs, and the lack of clarity between
CDF and the Minister, and between Mr Hampton and Brigadier Bornholt, about what
the photographs depicted.
The central miscommunication,
however, related to the differences in Mr Hampton and Mr Bloomfield’s
understandings of the purpose for which the photographs were being released.
As noted earlier, Mr Bloomfield
was always aware that the photographs depicted the rescue of the SIEV’s
passengers from their sinking vessel on 8 October 2001.
He first spoke of the
photographs with Mr Hampton in the context of telling him about Commander
Banks’s interview with Channel 10, which itself focused on the sinking of SIEV
4 and the rescue of its 223 passengers. At this stage, however, Mr Bloomfield
did not have copies of the photographs and when he subsequently described them
to Mr Hampton, he did so in general terms as being of ‘UBA’s in the water’.
According to Mr Bloomfield’s
recollection, he had the photographs forwarded to Mr Hampton before he sent an
email brief about the content of Commander Banks’s interview. The brief did not explicitly advise
that the photographs were of the sinking of the vessel on 8 October, but it did
mention the photographs in the context of the interview. It read:
I received a call ... from channel ten seeking a photograph of
Commander Norm Banks and copies of photographs that she understood had been
forwarded to Defence Canberra by HMAS Adelaide.
Following a brief discussion it transpired that CH10 had conducted an interview
with CMDR Banks in relation to the most recent UBA’s ... At my request, [Andrew
Herring Fleet Public Relations Officer] contacted CMDR Banks ... and gained the
following appreciation of the interview.
The interview content, he
advised, included discussion of the rescue of the UBAs, the provision of food
and water, the austere accommodation arrangements, medical treatment and
personal encounters. The brief went on to say that Mr Bloomfield was unaware of
what else was said but was ‘advised it was a lengthy interview’.
Mr Bloomfield told Ms Bryant
that although ‘he considered it was clear that the photos were directly related
to Commander Banks’s interview which was about the sinking and rescue, rather
than the child overboard incident’, he accepted in retrospect that Mr Hampton
may have been thinking of them differently.
Mr Hampton was less prepared
than Mr Bloomfield to accept that there was miscommunication based on mutual
misconception of what each had uppermost in his mind. He said that at the time
of the release of the photographs, ‘everyone was talking about the children
overboard incident - no-one was talking about the sinking. Conversations were
in the context of finding a way to back up Mr Ruddock’s comments given
questioning in the media’.
Mr Hampton thought that the
only possible explanation for Mr Bloomfield not alerting him to the true subject
matter of the photographs was that at the time he had not himself read their
accompanying text. Mr Hampton insisted that:
there was no doubt we were supplying the photos to the media on
the basis that they were photos of the first jumping/throwing event. It is just
not believable that Mr Bloomfield thought it was otherwise. It is also
unbelievable that if he had on his computer screen before him text - ostensibly
proving that the photos were of another event - that he wouldn’t have alerted
me to the fact that we [were] about to possibly mislead the media and public.
The Committee considers,
however, that the miscommunication could well have arisen precisely because of
the different ‘top of mind’ concerns present for each party.
Mr Hampton was clearly focused
on proving the report that children had been thrown overboard. Mr Bloomfield
was worried primarily about Commander Banks’s unauthorised interview and about
its contravention of the explicit public affairs directive for Operation Relex
that no media comment at all was to come from within Defence.
As Ms Bryant pointed out, ‘the
loose terms in which the photographs were discussed between Mr Bloomfield and
Mr Hampton (“UBA’s in the water”)’ meant that neither became aware of the
other’s misconception, which was then not corrected before the photographs were
Defence knowledge of
The realisation within Defence
that there was no evidence to support the report that children had been thrown
overboard from SIEV 4 arose gradually over the period from 8 or 9 October to 11
October. As was discussed earlier in this chapter, that realisation was
communicated over that period up the chain of command, landing with Rear
Admiral Ritchie and Admiral Barrie by 11 October 2001.
By contrast, knowledge that the
photographs of Able Seaman Laura Whittle and Leading Seaman Cook Barker were
being misrepresented when they were published in the media on 10 October was
available immediately to anyone who had seen the photographs with their
captions on the Defence email network.
Thus, information about the
incorrect attribution was passed through the military chain of command within
minutes of the photographs appearing on the ABC’s 7.30 Report on the evening of 10 October. Rear Admiral Smith
contacted Rear Admiral Ritchie (COMAST) and Vice Admiral Shackleton (CN) to
tell them of the misrepresentation,
and COMAST and CN in turn both rang Admiral Barrie.
Knowledge that the photographs
were being publicly misrepresented was available on the civilian side of
Defence even before the 7.30 Report
was broadcast, with Brigadier Bornholt having confirmed that afternoon that
they depicted the events of 8 rather than 7 October 2001. The Brigadier had
left a message on Mr Hampton’s mobile phone to that effect at 4.45pm, but Mr
Hampton said that he never received it.
In the late afternoon of 10
October, Brigadier Bornholt sent an email to the Head of Public Affairs and
Corporate Communication, Ms Jenny McKenry, informing her that Mr Hampton had
not returned his call. He suggested that Mr Mike Scrafton, Military Adviser to
Mr Reith, needed to be informed of the misrepresentation of the photographs in
writing. The Secretary of the
Department of Defence, Dr Allan Hawke, was told the next day that the
photographs were being publicly misrepresented.
By 11 October 2001, the Chief
of Defence Force, Admiral Barrie, had been told that there was no evidence to
support the report that children had been thrown overboard from SIEV 4 and that
the photographs published purportedly as evidence of that incident were
actually of a different incident and taken on a later day.
On 11 October 2001, the
Secretary of the Department of Defence, Dr Allan Hawke, was likewise told that
the photographs published on television on the evening of 10 October and in the
print media on 11 October were falsely represented as evidence of ‘children
The question to which the
Committee turns in the next chapter is what happened next to that information,
and how the record was allowed to stand uncorrected.