The Children Overboard Incident: WHat the Fact Handlers did with the Facts

Part 1 detailed what it was that actually happened – the event that was used to create the rather extravagant tale about children being thrown overboard by malicious que-jumpers.  Part 2 looked at the reasons behind the Children Overboard Debacle, and Part 3 attempts to fill in the details of how this story came to be: the game of Chinese Whispers, the insatiable desire for fantastic stories about refugees, the absolute lack of responsibility throughout the Ministries and bureaucracies and military agencies involved in the formation and perpetuation of the child overboard claims.[1]

The child overboard story properly begins with a phone conversation between Commander Banks, CO of HMAS Adelaide, and Brigadier Silverstone, Commander Joint Task Force 639 during the early hours of October 7 amidst the high drama of people jumping overboard from SIEV 4.  Now, as a matter of course, it is not a part of the standard chain-of-command information-relay to pass information over the phone as an incident unfolds.  In fact, this is highly unusual.[2]  This exceptional chain of reportage can be explained by government involvement in military operations.  Indeed, it seems that Silverstone was quizzing Banks at this inappropriate time because it was desired that Minister Reith have some fresh information on the ‘illegals’ when he appeared on the Sunday program later that morning. In the course of the conversation, Commander Banks told Brigadier Silverstone that a man onboard SIEV 4 had threatened to throw a child overboard, and that he had witnessed such himself.  In this heated exchange (heated because Banks was annoyed that he was giving fodder for propaganda at a time when he was dealing with a serious incident and a potential in extremissituation requiring his leadership), Brigadier Silverstone misrecorded or misinterpreted his comments.  He recorded Banks as having indicated that a child had been thrown by a SUNC into the water.  This is the juncture at which the misinformation which goes on  to form the backbone of the child overboard claims originates.


While Banks was subsequently gracious enough to admit his recollection of the conversation was possibly incorrect and that it was possible he had said a child was thrown overboard, this is mere politicing.[3]  It is conceivable how Silverstone made this mistake, as Banks was also indicating that SUNCs had thrown themselves overboard, and that it seemed their actions were intended to place the Adelaide under duress.


Brigadier Silverstone then immediately phones this information to Air Vice Marshall Titheridge and to Rear Admiral Smith.[4]  The inadvertant embellishing of the reports continued with Smith claiming that Silverstone had informed him that “children”, not a single child, were thrown overboard.  Smith then reported this to Dr Brendan Nelson, Parliamentary Secretary, in the late afternoon of October 7.  Meanwhile, AVM Titheridge had made a phone call to Ms Jane Halton (from the Office of the Prime Minister and Cabinet), Chair of the Taskforce meeting, during the inter-departmental conference of the morning of the 7th.[5]  Some confusion reigns as to who released the misinformation into the meeting, but Group Captain Walker as Director Joint Operations (DJOPS) who was in attendance recalls thus: “When I arrived at PM & C, Jane Holton stated that fourteen of the UBAs were in the water, and that they were throwing children in.  This information was news to me, but being somewhat embarrassed that she appeared better informed than me, I made no comment and I do not know how she obtained her information.”  “At the evening IDC…discussion ensued as to who made the statement.  Bill Farmer (SEC DIMA) suggested it was me; I stated that it had been Jane Halton, Jane said nothing.”[6]  It seems it was Ms Halton who released this information into the meeting.  Shortly after, and while the meeting continued, Bill Farmer (DIMIA) took a call from Minister Ruddock and advised him of the purported incident of children being thrown overboard on SIEV 4.  Within 2 hours Minister Ruddock had, during the course of answering questions at the end of community consultations on recent asylum seeker legislation, without any prompting divulged the allegations (though presented as fact) that children had been thrown overboard SIEV4.  In total only four hours had elapsed between the incident with the girl in the pink jumper and the embellished reports made public to the media of children being thrown overboard.


The following day, the 8th, Commander Banks circulated photos taken that day of the SIEV 4 drama to numerous addresses.  The photos were of the sinking of the SIEV and the subsequent rescue operation.  While this was strictly speaking outside standard operating procedures, Banks circulated these photos because he was proud of his crews’ actions and seemed to want to circulate information about the rescue to a wider audience.  In any event, because he sent the photos to so many addresses, it became very difficult to keep track of the diffusion of these photographs.  From Banks’ initial release of these photos, they were subsequently forwarded to many new addresses despite it being outside the chain of command or contrary to SOPs.  One of the addresses sent the captioned photographs of 8 October was PACC DML Bloomfield.  The photos with captions were then sent by him to Ross Hampton at the MINDEF Melbourne Office on 9 October. The following day, October 10, Hampton directed DPACC (Bloomfield) to send the same photographs, but without captions, to the MINDEF Canberra Office.  Bloomfield questioned the decision to not include the captions, but Hampton was resolute that they not be included.  The photos were subsequently forwarded to Canberra Office. Later, at around 3 oclock that afternoon, Hampton again called Bloomfield.  He henceforth wanted Bloomfield to release the photographs to the media as per individual requests by the media.  Again, Bloomfield made certain that Hampton wanted the photos released without captions, and again that was confirmed to be the case.[7]  Thereafter Bloomfield released the photos upon request to the numerous interested media bodies.[8]


Once Brigadier Bornholt became aware that MeAMINDEF Ross Hampton was intending that afternoon to release certain photographs of the SIEV 4 incident under the guise of photographs of women and children going overboard on 7 October, whereas the photographs were of the sinking on 8 October, he confirmed that there were no photographs from 7 October, and then obtained the same photographs that Hampton was going to release without captions, which included accurate captions that decisively settled Bornholt’s mind on the matter: the photographs were of 8 October, and thus Hampton had or was giving incorrect advice.   This being 10 October, at around 3:45 pm Bornholt phoned Hampton (who was in Melbourne with Minister Reith) to set the matter straight. This was chronologically before Hampton authorised the first release of the photos around an hour later (the first recipient of which was the Parliamentary Press Gallery in Canberra), so Hampton knew of these strong doubts before he released them.


However, upon hearing Brigadier Bornholt’s advice that the photographs had been erroneously released under an incorrect guise, Hampton questioned that advice.  He told Bornholt that CDF had provided the photos to MINDEF, and that they had clearly been told that the photos were of October 7.[9]  This, of course, is completely irrelevant but-for when apportioning blame in a political witch-hunt.  So far as correcting the public record goes, it should not have mattered whether or not Hampton had acted on correct or incorrect advice, as the damage was already done.  The unequivocal advice provided by Bornholt should have prompted Hampton into action to right this misinformation, but unfortunately it did not.  And likewise, Bornholt was complicit in that he did not say, “The buck stops here.”  Instead, he agreed to check the original advice Hampton had received and then get back to him.  Brigadier Bornholt dutifully did this, and was advised that CDF did not make such representations to MINDEF.  He then checked with Strategic Command Division to check whether they had provided this advice to MINDEF.  They did not.  Subsequently, Bornholt called Hampton on his mobile phone, but Hampton did not answer, so Bornholt left a message on his answering service advising that he had now, beyond any doubt, confirmed the photographs as released were incorrect.  Bornholt says that Hampton did not return his call.  Hampton says he never received any such message from Bornholt.  That both parties left the matter there is remarkable: at best it is the grossest and most unprofessional of conduct, at worst one or both parties were complicit or active in an act of deception.[10]


On 10 October Ms Jenny McKenry, HPACC, was viewing the photos with Brig Bornholt when she was advised by the Acting DGCA that the DML had been told by Ross Hampton “to pass the photographs to the media without the captions.  We became concerned about the existence of such photos in the public domain without captions.  I requested Gary to urgently contact Ross Hampton and to explain that the photographs were taken on the day the SIEV sank.  Gary undertook to make the calls.  He related that he had left a voice message on Ross Hampton’s mobile and would try again.”[11]


Further, during a meeting in McKenry’s office about this issue between Bornholt and McKenry (HPACC) on 11 October, Mike Scrafton MiAMINDEF called on the phone, and so he too was advised in some detail of the situation and of the fact that the photographs were not of the 7 October events.[12]


After this series of events the photos were printed and reprinted by the media, and the misinformation about the child or children being thrown overboard was allowed to stand in the public domain as the truth. It is a remarkable occurrence that so many people knew the truth, but no-one saw fit to fill the public in.  Numerous high-ranking public servants and military officers who knew the truth about the child overboard incident and the truth about the photos and yet did not see to a correction of the record.  For our purposes we can leave this tortuous series of events there, and jump forward in time to three more events of interest.


The first is on 24 October when the PM visited the Adelaide for about an hour.  It is worthy of our interest because at this time Commander Banks knew full well that no children had been thrown overboard and he also knew that there had been no correction of the misinformation on the topic and thus that the public still believed the child overboard incident actually happened.  Yet Commander Banks did not take the opportunity to advise the PM that there never was a child thrown overboard, as this was when there was some controversy flaring.  Banks states that the reason he held back was because the issue was not of his immediate concern as he was focused on Operation Slipper, and also it was not his position or responsibility, despite the fact that he admits he was aware of the issue.[13]


We then skip ahead to 31 October 2001, to find MINDEF Peter Reith visiting the Darwin NORCOM HQ.  He had  a brief conversation with Brig Silverstone.  During this conversation Mr Reith made statements that indicated he was still operating under the belief that a child was thrown overboard.  He wanted to see the extant video of the event which he believed might support the claims.  According to Brigadier Silverstone, Silverstone then said to Reith something to the effect of, “Minister, the video does not show things clearly and does not show children overboard.  We also have concerns that no children were thrown in the water at all and we have made an investigation of that.”[14]  Brigadier Silverstone reports that upon this Reith said, “Well, we’d better not see the video then,” and left it at that.[15]  Silverstone has stated that, “As he [Reith] left, my thoughts were, ‘He hasn’t listened to what I said.’”  Yet he did not correct Reith on the matter of there being no child being thrown overboard.  Later that afternoon he did, however, phone Rear Admiral Ritchie and advise him that Reith was still labouring under false auspices.[16]  No further action was taken.


The next event of the saga, and indeed the final instalment in the story presented here (though by no means the end of the matter), is on 8 November when the Chief of Navy, Vice Admiral Shackleton, holds a media conference at HMAS Stirling.  Responding to a barrage of questions about the children overboard claims, Shackleton makes the first public correction of any kind regarding the misinformation, telling reporters that the advice given to the Navy was that there were threats to throw children overboard, but no more.  What happened to the advice after that, Shackleton mused, he did not know.  The media picked this story up and that evening the headlines trumpeted the revelation that there had been no child, let alone children, overboard.


Having the Chief of Navy contradict the Prime Minister, Minister for Defence and Minister for Immigration on this question of fact in a naval operation was considered unacceptable by the upper echelons of the government bureaucracy.  Peter Hendy contacted Jenny McKenry, determined that a “clarifying statement” was necessary from the CN, and this was left to her department.  Initially, as was asked of the Navy bureaucracy, a statement was prepared at Navy HQ and was submitted to McKenry, but she felt it did not adequately address the issue of previous advice to the Minister for Defence.  Over the phone McKenry walked Shackleton through a revised statement that she had constructed that did address the issue, and Shackleton agreed to it.  The statement was cleared by Allan Hawke, sent to Minister Reith’s and the PM’s offices for perusal, and read to acting CDF Cosgrove.  Then it was released to the media, presented as a clarifying statement issued by Shackleton.  It was intended to reassure the public that blame rested on the military, not on the public service and our Ministers.


But by this stage the cat had well and truly been let out of the bag.  The truth, or a better version of the facts perhaps, finally emerged.  Nevertheless, the popular image of the refugee had sunk to an even lower category of alien other than it was hitherto at, and John Howard had won the election.  I leave the conclusions and commentary to you to make; I have here merely presented a better version of the facts than the version presented at the time of the child overboard incident.

[1] As for part 1, referencing in this article has been, for the most part, omitted.  It is, therefore, ill-advised to reference this article in any further works.  All the information presented herein can be found in its original (though rather voluminous) form as evidence submitted and minutes taken for the Senate Inquiry Into A Certain Maritime Incident.

[2] Nevertheless, Commander Banks had to take numerous calls during the incident from his military superiors.

[3] Second to Commander Banks’ veracity there is a corroborating statement by PWO Hynes, present during Banks’ conversation, which verifies his version of events.

[4] While reporting this information onto Rear Admiral Smith was a matter of process in reporting up the Chain of Command, the advice to AVM Titheridge was by special arrangement.  On Oct 6 AVM Titheridge ordered Silverstone to report to him at 0730 I/K on Oct  7 the latest on SIEV 4.  Titheridge needed to be briefed because it was believed that the up to date information was needed for special briefings for Minister Reith for media purposes.  Essentially, this was out of the Chain of Command and unnecessary, and interrupted Banks’ command of the events.

[5] Titheridge also made a phone call to either Minister Reith or to his  office, advising of the information.

[6] Enclosure 1 to Powell Report, Statement of GPCAPT Walker.

[7] Enclosure 1 to Powell, Bloomfield Statement.  Also worth noting is that earlier that afternoon Hampton had called Captain Byrne (SO MAPACC, ie Staff Officer), wanting to know of the people who went overboard on 7 October, how many were women and children.  Byrne then made some enquiries, all of which seemed to indicate no women or children had gone overboard.  “In the meantime, Ross Hampton called again and was agitated because I did not have the information he wanted.  When I advised that it was taking some time to answer his question because I could not find any reference to children being pushed overboard in any reporting, he became extremely agitated……After this second call, I realised there was a significant difference between information at the Minister’s Office level and information within the Department.  I advised BRIG Bornholt of the details of this issue.”  Note that Byrne’s initial indication to Hampton that no evidence in the signals or records indicated women or children overboard was passed to Hampton before he ordered the release of the photos to the media under the guise of proof – purported to be photos of 7 October.  Enclosure 1 to Powell, Byrne statement.  It seems that Hampton pushed on with circulating the misinformation despite all indications that his information or beliefs were wrong.

Also, in dispute is what was meant by “caption”.  In his interview with Bryant, Hampton says that by caption he meant title (“Laura the Hero” and “Dogs and His Family”), whereas on the other  end Bloomfield seemed to interpret “caption” as being explanatory captioned text (the proper meaning of caption).  Hampton’s version is convenient and unconvincing.  Further, disputing Bloomfield, Hampton states that it was a mutual decision to remove the “captions”.

[8] It is certain it was accompanying text not titles Bloomfield was removing.  Also, Bloomfield’s Powell Statement indicates he probably knew the content of the text.

[9] Hampton’s reference to CDF approval is taken out of context.  It seems that the approval MINDEF received was based on a conversation between Reith and CDF Barrie earlier that day.  Reith had phoned Barrie about the photographs and Barrie had indicated that the purported photos were “part of the factual material collected on boarding and there was no reason why they couldn’t be released.”  However, it seems that CDF’s approval was only a consequence of CDF assuming they would be used in their true context.  Admiral Barrie states that he had not actually seen the photos at the time, whereas Reith disagrees with this, saying that it “had been Admiral Barrie describing the incident.”  Certain traces strongly indicate Barrie’s recollection is the true account.  Bryant, Reith Statement; and Barrie Statement.   Further, Reith seems to embellish even more in his Statement to Powell, where he says, Barrie “was aware there were requests from the media for photos which supported the claim that children were thrown into the water.  I asked him if there was any reason why the photos could not be distributed.  He said there was no reason…”  Construction of the sentence implies Barrie knew they were specifically speaking of photos from 07 Oct (which don’t exist), which is untrue.

[10] Enclosure 1 to Powell, Bornholt Statement.  Note that in Hampton’s Letter to Hendy included in Enclosure 1 to Powell, Hampton gives a completely contrary story and all the less believable (consider that Bornholt has showed himself to be credit worthy and he has corroboration from McKenry and Byrne and perhaps others).  Hampton says when Bornholt called they agreed that Bornholt must have had a different set of photographs and as corroboration he says he had 2, whereas Bornholt had 4, which explained the inconsistency.  However, Bornholt says he had his Staff Officer (Byrne) get the new photos, that “the two photographs were new and clearly showed women and children in the water.  They were captioned as such and clearly described the events as having occurred on 8 0ct 01.”  Only then did Bornholt call Hampton!  Hampton says, “He agreed he hadn’t seen these particular photos and he must be looking at another set of photos.  I proceeded from this conversation confident that a mistake had not been made…”  Hampton does not even acknowledge Bornholt’s phone message.

Note, Bornholt did not call again.  Further, Hampton denies ever receiving the message; he suggests technical reasons to explain this.

[11] Enclosure 1 to Powell Report, McKenry.  She continues: “Gary Bornholt forwarded an email to me that evening, which I did not receive until the next day, saying that he had failed to speak to Ross Hampton and voicing concerns that the true date of the photos had the potential for leaking to the media.” 1 to Powell, McKenry.  Note, the actual email McKenry is referring to, sent by Bornholt, reads: “I left a message with Ross on this issue and he has not returned my call.  Given the profile that this has in the media ie that the photos depict people who jumped into the water on Sunday when in fact they don’t, it is only a matter of time before this possibly finds  its way into the public arena.  The distribution of the photos with the captions is wide enough to consider leakage of the facts to be a probability.  I think we should advise Mike Scrafton in writing…so that the Minister is aware of the possibility of ensuing damage.”

[12] Enclosure 1 to Powell, Bornholt Statement.

[13] Enquiry, p. 282.  But he also says he thought by then the issue “had died”.

[14] Senate Enquiry, p. 346, also similar statement in Enclosure 1 to Powell Report, Attachment 4 to Statement by CJTF.

[15] Enclosure 1 to Powell Report, Attachment 4 to Statement by CJTF, para. 4.

[16] Senate Enquiry, p. 346.

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