A major row about journalistic integrity threatens the credibility of the Queensland Premier’s 2017 Literary awards. Last week Brisbane’s Courier-Mail newspaper announced triumphantly that a book Little Fish are Sweet by one of its senior reporters had been short-listed for the most prestigious section of the Premier’s annual literary awards. The book, by Matthew Condon, was published by Queensland University Press. An excerpt, concentrating on supposed revelations about paedophilia in the Anglican Church Grammar School (Churchie), appeared in the Courier-Mail on November 5, 2016.
Errors of fact and interpretation in that article (and the book) were immediately challenged by old boys of the school, who demanded the newspaper publish a correction. The newspaper refused, claiming that Condon had “meticulously researched the subject matter”. It declined to address the factual errors.
Outrage has been renewed by the discovery that the Little Fish book has been nominated by the Courier-Mail and short listed for the award for “A Work of State Significance.” The book is a travesty of journalism, literature, criminology and history. It is a work of disreputable shoddiness. It should never be thought of as significant to or for Queensland.
Unfortunately it follows other books by the same author claiming to be authoritative accounts of the dark story of corruption that riddled the Queensland police force, books which have been challenged by people closer to the subject than Condon.
His vicious demonisation of former senior detective Tony Murphy was possible only because Murphy was dead. Retired barrister and former Director of Public Prosecutions, Des Sturgess helped write Tony Murphy – An Honest Cop with his widow Maureen in attempt to rebut the untruths in Condon’s writings. The Little Fish cover blurb admits that it is essentially a re-hash of stories contained in the trilogy which began with Three Crooked Kings, and continued with Jacks and Jokers and All Fall Down. It is described as “Matthew Condon’s extraordinary personal account of writing the Three Crooked Kings trilogy”, which originated in an interview with disgraced former police commissioner Terry Lewis.
But late chapters introduce new material on paedophilia, cobbled together to insinuate criminal associations that have never been proved. More seriously, a greater part of the chapter entitled Photos with Clarrie were derived from the story-telling of a convicted murder and fraudster who was revealed in the national press this year as an audacious conman and extortionist.
Condon admitted the source of his information was Brisbane man Grant David Mathiesen by acknowledging his murder conviction, but did not name him. Since the publication of Little Fish, I and others working in Brisbane, Sydney, Tokyo and Montreal have shown that Mathiesen made, or attempted to make claims of sexual abuse while a student of three, possibly four schools he attended.
In each, access to compensation funds seems to have been the motivation. In the case of his Japanese school, he obtained $60,000 by false pretences and tried to extort an extraordinary $66 million dollars in compensation for abuse that never happened. In the case of Churchie, he has already benefitted by at least $120,000, and hopes for more from the national Redress programme.
This was the source that Condon relied on for his scurrilous statements that Mathiesen, while a student at Churchie had been drawn into a paedophile network, and had broken bounds to be photographed naked in various locations around Brisbane. This linked him with the notorious Clarence Osborne, who committed suicide in 1979 after being apprehended by police, and his weird history of preying on youths for “research” was exposed.
I and others have now written to Simon Cleary, Brisbane novelist who is chairman of the judging panel for the Work of State Significance section, asking for the book to be withdrawn from the shortlist. The protest has been copied to the Queensland Premier Anastacia Palaszczuk, her deputy, Jackie Trad, publisher Queensland University Press, and the Editor in Chief of The Australian newspaper, Paul Whittaker.
The first thing that emerged from my enquiries was that the Queensland State Library is responsible for organising the Queensland Literary Awards. Angela Renshaw, Manager, Reading and Writing/Engagement and Partnerships told me that all nominations are checked for eligibility by library staff and then forwarded to the category judges. However Ms. Renshaw has not replied to my request for information about the criteria for eligibility. I particularly asked whether non-fiction works were checked for factual accuracy, balance or impartiality.
The errors in Little Fish are serial and not trivial. They smack of journalistic laziness, a refusal to approach sources who might contradict Mathiesen’s sensational inventions. That was unpardonable since the Churchie old boys’ challenge to the inflated stories of paedophilia in the school was well known.
Condon’s technique of suggesting conviction by association was demonstrated by his linking the histories of Queensland University Professor of Geology, Dr. F.W. Whitehouse, headmaster of Churchie, Dr. H.E. Roberts, and paedophile Clarence Osborne. In the chapters Doc and Who hath smelt wood smoke at twilight?, Condon wove the three together suggestively. He reported that Whitehouse and Roberts shared an honours award on graduation from Queensland University, “with little doubt” met up later in Europe, and later were close when Roberts invited the geologist to give talks to his boys at Toowoomba Grammar School. Meanwhile, Whitehouse had achieved prowess as a coach for the Toowong Rowing Club, and later the University Club, and a future master paedophile Clarrie Osborne was one of his oarsmen.
Osborne, 40 years later, would be exposed as one of the world’s worst serial paedophiles; Freddy Whitehouse would be convicted of committing an act of gross indecency with a young man (which would not be an offence today); Harry Roberts would be identified by Condon as “presiding over” four paedophiles operating in his school. One of them was a master whose activities were not known until nearly sixty years later; another was Whitehouse, the rowing coach of Churchie’s 1st Four for two years who was never accused of anything at the school. The circle of contamination was completed with the uncorroborated story of carloads of boys from a particular local private school (read: Churchie) being delivered to Clarrie Osborne’s home at Mt Gravatt for photographing and measuring sessions in his ‘studio’ at the bottom of his Eyre Street property.
The way Condon joined the dots to his satisfaction was indicated by his use of Archie Butterfly (formerly Brenden Sheehan) whose scurrilous blog of vile invective sends shudders through Queenslanders who read it. He reported that the blog helped “the previously shadowy figure of Doc Whitehouse to take shape.” Condon says: “Butterfly, through his enquiries, research and electoral roll and property searches, became increasingly convinced that Whitehouse was an historical abuser in the early to mid-twentieth century who had, in fact, passed the metaphorical baton of child abuse onto Clarence Osborne, who grasped it and elevated paedophilia in this country to an unprecedented level.” There is no evidence at all for this statement.
Fifteen months ago, Grant Mathiesen initiated an e-mail correspondence with me, following my articles in Quadrant. In them he floated all the falsehoods and concotions – about Whitehouse, Clarrie Osborne, paedophilia and headmaster Roberts – that within a few months appeared in Condon’s book.
He even told me something else – that he had asked police to give him back the photos that Osborne took of him. That’s a story that Condon missed – or dared not print. Like the one real fact in all this – that the Queensland Crime and Corruption Commission last year interviewed many people, including a former premier about what they knew about Osborne. If there has been any finding, it’s still top secret.
Little Fish depends for its impact on supposition, conjecture, shadowy informers and a scandalous blogger. It is poorly written, invalid as history, useless in understanding corruption and a disgrace to Queensland.
Geoffrey Luck was an ABC journalist for 26 years