|Subject: SBS: Whitlam Denies Balibo
SBS WORLD NEWS AUSTRALIA (6:30 bulletin, 08/05/2007)
WHITLAM DENIES BALIBO KNOWLEDGE
Former prime minister Gough Whitlam has told a Sydney coroner's court that he wasn't told about the deaths of five Australian-based newsmen in East Timor in 1975 until five days after the event. The 90-year-old former politician took the witness stand today at the inquest into the death of one of the men, Brian Peters. The wife of another of the victims has described Mr Whitlam's evidence as 'bizarre'.
Shielding his face from the cameras today, former prime minister Gough Whitlam was asked to reveal what he knew about the deaths of the Balibo Five. From the witness box, Mr Whitlam told the court that he was interviewed twice by Greg Shackleton. Mr Shackleton told the then-prime minister he intended to travel to Portuguese Timor - later known as East Timor - to cover the anticipated invasion of the territory by Indonesia. Mr Whitlam told the court that he'd warned Mr Shackleton not to go. He told the court:
"I gave him the information I received from the Red Cross and again warned him that the Australian Government has no way of protecting him or his colleagues."
He later went on to say:
"I assumed that Greg Shackleton would take notice of my warnings to him. I assumed that he would tell his colleagues. It was very irresponsible if he didn't, and he would be culpable." p His statement has angered the journalist's widow.
SHIRLEY SHACKLETON, WIDOW OF VICTIM: I just think he's despicable. He's totally despicable to say that sort of thing - dead men can't tell stories.
Official Indonesian accounts of the incident claim the men were killed in crossfire between Indonesian forces and pro-independence fighters. But the families of the victims maintain that they were deliberately targeted. Mr Whitlam was then asked exactly when it was he was told about the deaths of the journalists. He told the court that it was five days after the event before word had reached him that the men had been killed in East Timor. Mr Whitlam says he was travelling between Sydney, Melbourne and Canberra and didn't have an opportunity to be briefed on the news. Mrs Shackleton rejects that claim.
SHIRLEY SHACKLETON: I reckon Gough Whitlam was told, "Get out of town, so you don't ever have to know this happened."
This afternoon, Mr Whitlam's former defence minister Bill Morrison said he was told of the men's deaths the day after they were killed but didn't pass the information on to the Prime Minister's office.
"I think the Prime Minister had enough problems on his hands. It was on pain of death to go anywhere near his office at the time".
The inquest continues. Leroy Ah Ben, World News Australia.
I warned newsman not to go: Whitlam
Sydney Morning Herald
Hamish McDonald May 8, 2007 - 4:23PM
The former Prime Minister, Gough Whitlam, today denied having any advanced knowledge of the Indonesian attack in East Timor in which five Australian newsmen were killed in 1975.
Mr Whitlam also revealed he had twice warned the Channel Seven journalist, Greg Shackleton, not to go to East Timor.
Mr Whitlam insisted the first news he was given about the deaths came from a briefing by defence and foreign affairs department officials on October 21, 1975 - five days after the attack.
He said he recalled that the officials told him of an intercepted Indonesian radio voice message which mentioned "four white bodies" at Balibo and he had immediately deduced they were Australian journalists.
"I remember the oral report vividly because I was told it was extremely rare for Indonesian radio messages to be intercepted in East Timor and that it was quite an accomplishment for this message to be plucked out of the airwaves," he said.
Later in a summary of Mr Whitlam's evidence in a closed session, the Deputy State Coroner, Dorelle Pinch, said Mr Whitlam had been told by the officials "they assumed they had received this message because an Indonesian had panicked and had broken radio silence in order to convey this message".
Under questioning, Mr Whitlam said he had never seen any intelligence suggesting the Indonesians had been following the five newsmen from Channel Nine and Channel Seven or indicating any intention to kill them.
Mr Whitlam said he had met the Channel Seven reporter, Greg Shackleton, who was among the dead, twice in September that year and been told of his plans to take a team into East Timor.
He told the court he had twice warned Mr Shackleton not to go to East Timor.
"I warned him the Australian government had no way of protecting him or his colleagues," he said.
Mr Whitlam said despite his warning to Mr Shackleton, he presumed the "four white bodies" in Balibo had been those of the Channel Seven journalist and his team.
He said Mr Shackleton should have conveyed his warning to his colleagues.
"I assumed Greg Shackleton would have taken notice of my warnings; I assumed he would have warned his colleagues," Mr Whitlam told the court.
"It would have been very irresponsible if he didn't; then he would be culpable."
Shirley Shackleton, the reporter's widow, was among a small group of bereaved family members in the packed courtroom of the NSW Coroners Court at Glebe to hear Mr Whitlam testify.
Mr Whitlam arrived via a back entrance and had already been assisted into the witness box when the inquest hearing opened at 10am.
He was occasionally lost for memories of names and events and referred often to written material.
He was asked by John Stratton SC, counsel for the family of the dead Channel Nine cameraman Brian Peters, whether the intelligence service had ever withheld material from his government.
Mr Whitlam answered "no" in apparent surprise, but then was asked why he had sacked the then head of the Australian Secret Intelligence Service, Bill Robertson, later on October 21, 1975.
"Robertson was sacked by me over misleading me about Chile," he said, apparently referring to the ASIS role in overthrowing the left-wing Chilean President Salvador Allande in 1973.
"He had not told me we had people in our embassy in Santiago in Chile."
Outside the court, Shirley Shackleton described Mr Whitlam's evidence as "bizarre" and said his evidence had been of little value to the inquest because he claimed he could not remember vital details.
She also attacked Mr Whitlam over his claims that he had warned her husband twice in September 1975 that the Australian government could not protect him if he went to East Timor.
"I just think he is despicable,'' Mrs Shackleton told reporters. "He is totally despicable.''
"Dead men can't tell stories so it's left to their poor old wives to do it for them."
Mrs Shackleton said she also doubted Mr Whitlam's claims that he was not told about the journalists' deaths until five days after they were shot dead on October 16, 1975.
"It doesn't make sense,'' she said. "If I had been him, I would have sacked his whole intelligence department.''
Right to know the truth
East Timor's Prime Minister, Jose Ramos Horta, said the families of the journalists have a right to know the truth about the incident.
"We will see whether Australia knew anything about it or not, but the most important thing is that the people know the truth,'' Mr Ramos Horta said.
"[All] these years after these young, brave journalists died, the families relatives and friends should be able to know the truth of what happened.''
Mr Ramos Horta was speaking ahead of tomorrow's presidential election in East Timor, where he is one of two candidates vying to become the tiny nation's head of state.