In announcing the appointment of Justin Stevens as the new executive producer of 7.30, ABC management boasted about the role of the program in investigative journalism.
On January 24, 7.30 presenter Leigh Sales introduced Natalie Whiting’s investigation into alleged corruption concerning the collapse of the Tasmanian Liberal government in 1972. In the process, 7.30 destroyed the reputation of Kevin Lyons (1923-2000), a former deputy premier of Tasmania, on the basis of allegations alone.
Early on, Whiting mentioned that Lyons was the son of Joseph Lyons, a former Tasmanian Labor premier who entered federal politics in 1929. He split with Labor over what should be Australia’s response to the Depression and helped form the United Australia Party, the predecessor to the Liberal Party. Joseph Lyons was a successful prime minister from January 1932 until his death in office in April 1939, leading his party to three election victories. It is a matter of record that the left in Australia dislikes Lyons.
Kevin Lyons was damned from the very start of the 7.30 program. Greg Rider, a former bookmaker, claimed that in 1972 he had delivered a briefcase, which he assumed contained cash, to Kevin Lyons’s home in the Hobart suburb of Sandy Bay. Rider cannot remember the address and claims to have left the briefcase at the front door following an instruction from a male voice to do so. The man who allegedly provided the briefcase is long dead.
For the benefit of viewers, 7.30 did a re-enactment of an event that may or may not have happened. Rider says that he did not know the name of the recipient of the briefcase at the time of delivery and has not the faintest idea of the address.
In 1972, the Lyons family lived on busy Sandy Bay Road and access to the property was from behind the house. Rider claims to be able to recall what was said on a particular day to him in 1972 but cannot remember where he went on the very same day. He was interviewed by Tasmanian police in 1972 but did not mention the briefcase incident at the time. The matter was first spoken about on 7.30 in 2018.
And now for some background. Kevin Lyons split with the Liberal Party in 1966 following a disagreement over preselection. He became an independent and later formed the Centre Party, which took over the remnants of the Tasmanian Country Party.
Lyons won a seat at the 1969 state election and his support made it possible for Liberal Party leader Angus Bethune to form a minority government. Lyons became deputy premier.
I taught in the politics department at the University of Tasmania in 1972 and am familiar with the local politics of the time.
In the 1960s and 70s, there was a strong strain of anti-Catholic sectarianism in the Liberal Party in Tasmania. Lyons, a Catholic, did not like the Protestant Bethune and many of his colleagues. The feeling was mutual.
In short, Lyons was not happy with his position and quit politics in March 1972, having decided with his wife to move the family (of six children) to Melbourne.
Without a majority, Bethune advised the Tasmanian governor to call an election. It was run, and was won by Labor under the leadership of Eric Reece.
Immediately, the rumour emerged that Lyons had been bribed by Federal Hotels (now called the Federal Group), since it was alleged that Federal Hotels believed it was in its interests for Labor to be in office. The suggestion was that Labor would be more supportive of its casino/gambling interests.
The allegation that Lyons was bribed has been around for almost half a century and has never been proved. Tasmania Police investigated the matter in 1973 but took no action.
It’s true that, after politics, Lyons and another person set up a public relations company and that Federal Hotels was one of its clients. But the business did not last long. Lyons went into running a bottle shop and later real estate.
I met him at the beginning of 1980 when buying a property in Melbourne. He worked through the Christmas holiday season — not the action of a man who appeared to be sustained by the proceeds of crime.
ABC’s 7.30’s contribution to the investigative journalism in this instance was to roll out the case for the (Lyons) prosecution. Namely, Andrew Wilkie (independent MP for Denison), Max Bingham (Bethune’s attorney-general), former Labor operatives Hugh Dell and Derek Holden (both critics of Reece) and John Jacob (a business rival of Federal Hotels). The account of both Dell and Holden was based on hearsay. That was it.
The Federal Group declined to be interviewed, saying that the company would not respond to vague and baseless allegations from long ago. The ABC has declined to answer whether it attempted to contact any member of Kevin Lyons’s family.
The ABC also refuses to answer why it did not interview anyone who contested Whiting’s conspiracy-based report.
In the lead-up to the March 3 Tasmanian election, gambling has become a campaign issue. Following the publication of James Boyce’s Losing Streak: How Tasmania was Gamed by the Gambling Industry (Black Inc, 2017), Tasmania Police is reviewing its original investigation of 1973.
The ABC said on Thursday that the 7.30 report “made it clear … that these were allegations and that the original police investigation found no evidence of a criminal conspiracy”.
In fact, this was not the thesis of Whiting’s report. The very enactment by the ABC of Rider’s (alleged) delivery of a locked briefcase to Lyons’s home clearly implied that Lyons was bribed. No one with a contrary view was heard on the program. It was a case of defaming the dead — without evidence.
In any event, neither 7.30 nor any of the critics of Lyons and Reece have established a case that the change of government in Tasmania in 1972 made a material difference to developments in the gaming industry in the state in the 70s or subsequently.