Prime time TV brings home police corruption

Robert Milliken on revelations that stunned Sydney
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AS they prepared for their annual holiday season a few weeks ago, Australians were stunned to turn on the television news and see one of the country's most prominent police officers having sex with a former prostitute.

There was more. Det SgtWayne Eade was then shown accepting drugs from the woman and asking her if she could obtain child pornographic videos. At the time, Sgt Eade was head of the police drug unit on the Central Coast, a large population centre north of Sydney, and a former organiser of police-supervised discos for teenagers. Since the night of his humiliating exposure, he has been suspended without pay.

It was the second bombshell to hit the screens since a Royal Commission began investigating police corruption in New South Wales. A few months earlier, families watching the TV news were confronted by the extraordinary scene of Det Graham Fowler, known as "Chook" - after the slang term for chickens - sitting in the front seat of a car being handed wads of cash by another policeman, allegedly his cut of a large bribe from one of Sydney's most notorious drug dealers.

In a torrent of foul-mouthed banter, "Chook" Fowler complained that he had not heard all week from "Fat George" Page, a brothel-keeper and alleged heroin trafficker who has since been sent to prison.

Even after a succession of inquiries into crime and corruption stretching back 15 years, Australians have never seen anything to compare with it.

The commission was set up in 1994 after John Hatton, a former independent MP and corruption fighter, used his balance of power in the New South Wales state parliament to force the then government to confront corruption in the police force. Even before the inquiry began, top police officers and state government ministers dismissed it as a political stunt.

And, as it trundled along unsensationally for the first 13 months, they smugly assumed that they were right - until the video exposing "Chook" Fowler exploded into the living rooms of the nation last year. The commission's revelations since then have been so widespread, and its undercover methods so tenacious, that public support has become overwhelming.

No politician would dare condemn it now. What makes this inquiry different from any previous one in Australia - and perhaps anywhere else - is a potent combination of the most sophisticated surveillance technology ever invented, a corrupt cop-turned-supergrass willing to employ it and the power of television to expose the results to Australians at large.

The informer in question is Trevor Haken, a former detective sergeant who "rolled over" to the Royal Commission, after admitting his own corruption, and offered to help finger others of his ilk. It was with Haken's help that a miniature video camera was fitted to the dashboard of Fowler's police car and to light fittings in the home of the former prostitute visited by Wayne Eade, trapping both men.

After denying to the inquiry that they had ever indulged in corrupt behaviour, the unsuspecting policemen were shown the videos that proved them liars. The man who has condoned the use of electronic surveillance, and its public airing on television, is Mr Justice James Wood, the head of the inquiry and a former Supreme Court judge.

The quietly spoken Justice Wood believes that, faced with a code of silence among police officers, his inquiry will count for nothing unless it is backed by the power of public exposure. The delicate task of overseeing the planting of secret cameras and tape recorders has fallen to Nigel Hadgkiss, a senior officer with the Australian Federal Police, and formerly attached to the Royal Hong Kong Police and New Scotland Yard.

While accepting help from other police forces, Justice Wood has insisted that the inquiry remain completely independent of the NSW police. The judge's tactics have produced remarkable results. Haken has named to the inquiry dozens of police officers, reaching to the top echelons, whom he claimed had joined him in corrupt behaviour over the past 25 years.

One by one, others have rolled over too. Overnight, they have been spirited out of their suburban homes, and their children removed from schools, then given new identities to protect them. Haken's photograph has never been published.

Some of the policemen-turned-informers are described only in code. One of them, JTF7, who admitted receiving part of a A$100,000 (pounds 50,000) bribe from a criminal, told the inquiry: "Enough is enough. At least I'm walking out with a half-clean soul."

After the shock of seeing her husband's secret life exposed, Wayne Eade's wife has appealed for incriminating videos to be banned from prime-time TV. But the demand for corruption to be uncovered has gathered such momentum that more revelations are expected. The next item on the agenda for the inquiry is to probe alleged police protection of paedophile rackets.

The cynical citizens of Sydney, long resigned to the belief that their police force has been riddled with corruption ever since the city's foundation as a convict colony, are hoping that this inquiry will prove to be the biggest turning point in 200 years. Illicit trade in cannabis, heroin and cocaine is a A$2.6 billion-a-year (pounds 1.3bn) industry in Australia.

"Drugs have an enormous impact on corrupting police, particularly police who are otherwise decent, law-abiding and efficient detectives," said Justice Wood recently. "A significant consequence is the conversion of money to overseas and into a black economy in sums which would seem to exceed the net turnover of several of Australia's largest companies."