IN THE 14 months since SIEV 221 came to grief off Christmas Island and 50 lives were lost, Silly star David Marr has churned out quite a bit of that quality journalism. The flow began well before the last body had been hauled from the water, when Marr went to press with his considered opinion that the Royal Australian Navy needed to be held accountable. He took up the same theme at much greater length on the tragedy’s anniversary, once again blaming the navy for failing to detect the boat and, when its presence was known, for being culpably slow to mount a rescue. And on Friday, Marr was at it again, this time adding Western Australia Coroner Alistair Hope to his list of villains. Hope’s offence is to have produced a lengthy report which dares to disagree with Marr’s view of events.
We will get to Hope’s inquiry in a minute, but before then it needs to be noted that Marr’s boss, the quality CEO Greg Hywood, has lately been making all sorts of sanguine noises about his company’s transition to the Digital Age. Yet somehow, Cyber Dude Hywood’s Silly and Phage have each neglected to provide a link to Hope’s report, which is readily available via the web. Read it and the one question yet to be answered concerns not the navy but Marr: is he the most incompetent journalist in Australia or the most dishonest?
Below are some of Marr’s more florid assertions, followed by what Hope has to say about them. Incompetent or dishonest, you decide:
MARR 2010: The key mystery of this tragedy is how that boat was allowed near those cliffs in that filthy weather.
MARR 2012: [Hope] gives a lot of attention to the lack of radar, or indeed any, surveillance on the morning of the wreck; but the navy command comes out of clean.
True, Hope deals at length with surveillance, but he also explains why it is not to be regarded as a Navy failure:
HOPE 2012: The Jindalee Operational Radar Network (JORN) was not turned on at the time when SIEV 221 was wrecked and was never designed as a surveillance tool for detecting small wooden boats such as SIEV 221. At the time of the incident Border Protection Command had commenced a process to trial a land based radar system but that system was not operational. It is doubtful whether that type of radar system would have been capable of detecting SIEV 221 on the morning of 15 December 2010.
In his further comments, Hope notes the Navy ship, HMAS Pirie, and its companion Customs vessel, the Triton, were correct to have sheltered on the island’s lee, where they escaped the storm which drove SIEV 221 onto the rocks. From there, because a mountain was in the way, each was unable to scan the northern horizon, whence the doomed boat came.
Further, Hope observes that the area within 12 miles of Christmas Island is the responsibility not of the navy but of the Australian Federal Police, further noting that its patrol vessels were unfit to put to sea under such conditions. There would appear to be a story in this, as Hope reports AFP was forced to accept unreliable and unstable twin-hull vessels it did not want and whose adoption the Volunteer Marine Rescue Service also opposed. The Leisurecat craft were forced upon both services regardless and, as Hope remarks in passing, as a consequence of some curious business in regard to the awarding of contracts.
A quality journalist might catch the sniff of a story in that decision to equip rescuers with boats they could not use, but not Marr. So determined is he to blame the Navy and advance his initial judgment of its culpability, Hope’s points about those Leisurecats do not rate. Nor does he dwell on the fact that all those vessels were out of service due to safety and mechanical deficiencies when SIEV 221 hove into sight.
Finally, as Hope also points out, the navy had issued repeated reminders that its brief is coastal protection, not rescue. Its ships would be more than willing to take part in such operations, the brass advised, but they could not be counted upon as their prime duties might render them unavailable.
Indeed, when SIEV 221 went aground, the Pirie had its hands full tending to another people-smuggler boat, SIEV 220, which arrived at Christmas Island the day before.
MARR 2010: Christmas Island is a gloomy mountain sticking out of heavily patrolled seas. Navy and Customs are everywhere. For a boat to reach the cove undetected is extremely rare.
HOPE 2012: …another vessel SIEV 220 had arrived on the morning of 14 December and had first been detected by persons onshore in the area of the Settlement when it was only 300 yards north of Flying Fish Cove … over the preceding six months there had been an increasing number of SIEVs arriving at Christmas Island.
Indeed, as Hope also explains, finding and intercepting SIEVs off Christmas Island is not a priority for the entirely logical reason that refugee boats are already intent of going there, where they know safety awaits. The navy’s primary and more problematic chore is to intercept vessels which do not want to be found.
MARR 2012: [Christmas Island residents] had realised at once that a refugee boat steaming out of the murk at 5.30am was in danger.
No they didn’t. When first spotted, SIEV 221 was to the north of the island, its engine was working and its crew had the choice of heading to the storm-lashed western shore or the pacific eastern one, where a safe landing site was available at Ethel Beach. The first person to spot the boat was so unconcerned she did not bother to immediately contact authorities. Marr, who has made much of the precious minutes allegedly wasted by a “tardy” Pirie, also gets the time wrong:
HOPE 2012: [Island resident] Mr Martin contacted the customs on call officer, Les Jardine, by telephone at 5.46am and advised him of the situation.
The boat’s true peril became apparent to those onshore only after it executed that ill-advised turn to the west. That was around 6:00am, when a deluge of calls began to flood emergency operators and Christmas Island officials. As Hope puts it on page 34 of his findings, “the disastrous decision to turn to the west, presumably made by the crew, took place at about 5:55am and the boat then travelled to Rocky Point”, where it was wrecked.
HOPE 2012: Residents on Christmas Island made emergency calls at 5:57:57am, 5:58:56am, 5:59:34am, 6:00:06am, 6:07:04am and 6:09:04am. These calls went through to the AFP On-call officer on the Island who advised the officer in charge, Sergeant Peter Swann, of the calls at about 6:07am.
Having mangled the timeline, an error that just coincidentally aids his prosecutor’s case for navy negligence, the Silly’s coverage continues thus:
MARR 2012: “[Residents] made the right calls to the right people. They assumed the Pirie, sheltering in the lee of the island about half an hour away, would soon be on the scene. How wrong they were.”
What Marr also neglects to mention is that the Pirie was underway and making all haste for the island’s western side by 6:21am (page 63), just 11 minutes after Lieutenant Commander Mitchell Livingstone roused his crew and ordered the ship readied for rescue operations.
By 6:32am, the Pirie was making 24 knots when Livingstone received a more comprehensive briefing of SIEV 221’s engine failure and imminent danger. Such was its peril, Livingstone was advised to redeploy the second of his two rubber boats from attending to SIEV 220, which was allowed to drift unsupervised.
HOPE 2012: This appears to have been the first occasion on which those on the HMAS Pirie or ACV Triton were alerted to the concern that the SIEV might be in serious danger.
Remember, Marr asserts SIEV 221’s danger was apparent at 5:30am, suggesting the navy should have known about it and taken immediate action. Yet Hope states Livingstone only became fully aware of the situation’s gravity almost a full hour later.
Marr’s reaction is to sniff “Amazing!” – which it would be if Hope had not laid out an accurate timeline of the morning’s events, the timeline Marr pointedly declines to acknowledge.
Livingstone dropped a U-turn and retrieved his rubber boat, then resumed his original course – only to see his progress further slowed when one of his two engines went on the fritz. Marr, who declines to dwell on the dud Leisurecats, makes much of this mechanical failure.
MARR 2011: At 6.32am the Pirie set out at full speed for the other side of the island. Two minutes later her port engine automatically shut down. The cause of the failure - a small chunk of metal drawn into the turbo impeller - would not be discovered until the ship returned to Darwin. The Pirie was left limping through the swell at 16 knots.
Limping? Well, that is a matter of definition.
HOPE 2012: At about 6.35am HMAS Pirie suffered an emergency stop on her port main engine which initially limited speed to approximately 11 knots as the standing operating procedure, which was implemented, was to immediately bring the other main engine back in order to avoid damaging both engines.
Livingstone scrapped ship's operating protocol and thrashed the one remaining engine for all it was worth to achieve the16-knot speed which Marr regards as such a dawdle. In addition, he unloaded his rubber boats and sent them speeding by the shortest possible course to the crash site while he directed the Pirie via a longer route around an uncharted section of coast off the island’s northern edge.
While Marr makes highly selective use of Hope’s findings and narrative, there are some elements which do not rate a mention at all. One wonders if Marr’s eagerness to plead the boat people’s case might not have had something to do with these omissions from his late report:
HOPE 21012: the boat had no radio
· there were not enough life jackets
· the boat was overloaded
· the captain left halfway through the voyage
· the bilge pump was faulty
· people were instructed to throw their mobile phones away
· the engine had problems before the journey
· the fuel was not secured
· the survivors observed no emergency safety equipment, such as a maritime radio or EPIRB, and
· the GPS was thrown overboard, thereby abandoning a navigational tool that could have ensured safe passage to the lee of the island
Marr began his latest assault with this statement “The navy gets off lightly.” Accurate reporting, however, takes quite a beating.