The art of ghost­writ­ing is a silent bal­anc­ing act be­tween for­give­ness and ven­tril­o­quism, writes Tom Gilling

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Feature - Code of Si­lence: How One Hon­est Po­lice Of­fi­cer Took on Aus­tralia’s Most Cor­rupt Po­lice Force,

Iwas in­tro­duced to Col Dil­lon over lunch at a Syd­ney restau­rant. Dil­lon had a book in need of a ghost and I was a ghost in search of a book. We were a good fit. Dil­lon was from Queens­land, a ca­reer po­lice­man of unswerv­ing hon­esty whose ev­i­dence to the 1987 Fitzger­ald com­mis­sion of in­quiry was in­stru­men­tal in jail­ing the crooked cops, led by dis­graced com­mis­sioner Terry Lewis, who for a gen­er­a­tion had ex­torted bribes from the state’s pimps, gam­bling bosses and SP book­ies. With­out Dil­lon, Tony Fitzger­ald’s fal­ter­ing in­quiry might have col­lapsed be­fore it had prop­erly be­gun.

There was an­other di­men­sion to Dil­lon’s tale: he was an indige­nous man, the first to make the rank of po­lice in­spec­tor any­where in Aus­tralia. In­sti­tu­tional racism had dogged his ca­reer since the day he signed up.

Dil­lon had a com­pelling and im­por­tant story to tell: about the cul­ture of graft that was en­demic in the Li­cens­ing Branch; about the SP book­ies op­er­at­ing un­der the noses of their po­lice han­dlers; about the at­tempts by col­leagues to bribe him and the cam­paign of in­tim­i­da­tion that fol­lowed his de­ci­sion to tell the Fitzger­ald in­quiry what he knew.

I liked Dil­lon im­me­di­ately. There was only one prob­lem: 12 years ear­lier I had been hired by ABC Books to ghost the mem­oirs of an­other Queens­land po­lice­man who had played a star­ring role at the Fitzger­ald com­mis­sion of in­quiry, Jack Her­bert, the no­to­ri­ous bag­man who, as a de­tec­tive in the Li­cens­ing Branch, col­lected mil­lions of dol­lars in bribes on be­half of Lewis and other cor­rupt of­fi­cers.

By the time I met him, Her­bert was long re­tired and suf­fer­ing from a brain tu­mour. A pop­u­lar mem­ber of a lo­cal writ­ing group, he would not live to see his book pub­lished.

The sys­tem of cor­rup­tion was known in the force as the Joke, but to a man such as Dil­lon there was noth­ing funny about it. Nor had Dil­lon’s ex­pe­ri­ence as a wit­ness given him much to smile about. In re­turn for Her­bert’s of­ten du­bi­ous ev­i­dence, the Queens­land gov­ern­ment had promised im­mu­nity from pros­e­cu­tion as well as round-the-clock po­lice pro­tec­tion against the crooks and crooked cops it was feared might try to shut Her­bert up for good. Yet Dil­lon and his fam­ily re­ceived no pro­tec­tion; no one even screened the threat­en­ing phone calls to his home.

Al­though Her­bert had left the po­lice by the time Dil­lon joined the Li­cens­ing Branch, the Joke was still in op­er­a­tion and Her­bert’s old mates were still there to make life dif­fi­cult for Dil­lon.

I told him straight out that a decade ear­lier I had ghosted a book for Her­bert. I won­dered whether our col­lab­o­ra­tion might end be­fore the en­trees ar­rived, but Dil­lon seemed more wryly amused than any­thing.

Many Queens­lan­ders had noth­ing but con­tempt for Her­bert, a self-con­fessed per­jurer and bribe-taker whose ac­tions had done a lot of harm to a lot of peo­ple. It would be naive to sug­gest Her­bert re­deemed him­self by com­ing clean to the Fitzger­ald in­quiry — he knew it was his only chance of avoid­ing jail. Nor did I be­lieve he had told the in­quiry ev­ery­thing he knew. Her­bert had more to fear from some of his old mates on the force than he did from com­mis­sioner Fitzger­ald. In the course of writ­ing the book, I coaxed a bit more in­for­ma­tion out of Her­bert than he had in­tended to give, but he took his dark­est se­crets to the grave.

As far as I was con­cerned, Her­bert’s book — The Bag­man: Fi­nal Con­fes­sions of Jack Her­bert — had some­thing use­ful to say. The author was a vil­lain but he was no fool. He did not at­tempt to play down his guilt. His first-per­son ac­count of how he was cor­rupted by se­nior col­leagues, and how he used the same tech­niques to cor­rupt oth­ers, was a de­tailed and psy­cho­log­i­cally as­tute por­trait of how in­sti­tu­tional cor­rup­tion works.

On the other hand, Her­bert was a crim­i­nal who had made money out of a book I had been paid to help him write. If he was prof­it­ing from his ne­far­i­ous life, so was I. Those who could not for­give Her­bert were un­likely to for­give the ABC — and me — for his book.

Sev­eral years ago a lawyer con­tacted me on be­half of a client with an in­ter­est­ing story to tell. The client was an ex-drug dealer who had rolled over and was liv­ing un­der wit­ness pro­tec­tion, re­put­edly with a six-fig­ure con­tract on his head.

I knew all about six-fig­ure con­tracts; I had once had one my­self, but the worst I had to fear was be­ing re­main­dered. The thought of having a con­tract with a man with a con­tract on his head was dis­con­cert­ing: what if some­one mud­dled up the con­tracts?

Se­cu­rity con­cerns were go­ing to make re­search­ing the book a night­mare. As a Crown HER­BERT WAS A CRIM­I­NAL WHO HAD MADE MONEY OUT OF A BOOK I HAD BEEN PAID TO HELP HIM WRITE. IF HE WAS PROF­IT­ING FROM HIS NE­FAR­I­OUS LIFE, SO WAS I wit­ness­wit­ness, his where­abouts had to re­main se­cret and any meet­ings would have to be co­or­di­nated through the wit­ness pro­tec­tion of­fi­cers whose re­spon­si­bil­ity it was to make sure he lived long enough to give ev­i­dence in court. If I took the job, I’d be the ghost of a ghost.

Then there was the ques­tion of the “ex”. The lawyer as­sured me his client was now a re­formed man. But how “ex” is an ex-drug-dealer? What if he went back into busi­ness? Any form of col­lab­o­ra­tion re­quires some kind of eth­i­cal judg­ment and this one just didn’t sound right.

Ghost­writ­ing is a form of ven­tril­o­quism. It’s about catch­ing a voice. Morally, Her­bert and Dil­lon were poles apart, a crook and a whistle­blower, but in the way they wrote and spoke, they of­ten sounded oddly alike. All jobs have their jar­gon, but the po­lice are dif­fer­ent. Po­lice of­fi­cers have a strange, dis­em­bod­ied way of talk­ing. They talk about male and fe­male “per­sons” rather than men and women; they are fas­tid­i­ous about age and height. In their job the po­lice en­counter sit­u­a­tions and have to work back­wards to dis­cover who did what; across time they de­velop a habit of de­scrib­ing things in the pas­sive voice. Dil­lon, a na­tive Queens­lan­der, and Lon­doner Her­bert shared the same id­iom. Their voices were bar­na­cled un­der decades of po­lice-speak.

While the pair talked the same lan­guage, they lived on op­po­site sides of the law. Her­bert was in­ge­niously bent and Dil­lon doggedly in­cor­rupt­ible. The lat­ter gave ev­i­dence to the Fitzger­ald in­quiry vol­un­tar­ily and at great per­sonal cost; Her­bert was a cagey and com­pro­mised wit­ness who tes­ti­fied only to save his own skin. Dil­lon’s dis­dain for his cor­rupt col­leagues was so in­tense it was hard to imag­ine him and Her­bert in the same po­lice force to­gether, let alone the same room. But when I asked Dil­lon whether he and Her­bert had ever crossed paths, he told me they had — once.

As a young uni­formed con­sta­ble, Dil­lon had been en­cour­aged to ap­ply for the de­tec­tive train­ing course, a first step to­wards a cov­eted job at the Crim­i­nal In­ves­ti­ga­tion Branch. In 1974 one of the guest lec­tur­ers was De­tec­tive Sergeant Jack Her­bert of the Li­cens­ing Branch. Dil­lon re­mem­bered him vividly. Tall, well­groomed and — cour­tesy of the bribes he had been col­lect­ing for the past 15 years — im­mac­u­lately dressed, Her­bert cut a dash­ing fig­ure. Dil­lon was not the only one in the au­di­ence of young of­fi­cers to be awed.

In his lec­ture, the bag­man not sur­pris­ingly named loy­alty to mates as the most de­sir­able qual­ity in a de­tec­tive. “Was Her­bert siz­ing us up,” Dil­lon asked him­self, “won­der­ing which of us he would one day be able to re­cruit into his net­work of crooked de­tec­tives?”

Her­bert was a shrewd op­er­a­tor, the brains of a sys­tem of graft that reached all the way to the po­lice com­mis­sioner’s of­fice. If the two had sat down over a beer, Her­bert soon would have re­alised he was wast­ing his time with Dil­lon. As Her­bert once told me, know­ing who to ask was less im­por­tant than know­ing who not to ask.

Dil­lon is an easy man to like — but so, awk­wardly, was Her­bert. Some of the same jour­nal­ists who had worked to ex­pose Her­bert’s cor­rup­tion found him en­gag­ing com­pany after his down­fall. Had Her­bert and Dil­lon met out­side the court, I sus­pect they would have re­coiled from each other. I got along with both, though I fully trusted only one.

In li­braries all over Aus­tralia, the pair will now be shar­ing the same shelf, rub­bing bind­ings with the crooks and shoot­ers and shys­ters in the true-crime sec­tion. Her­bert will cer­tainly find the low-life com­pany more con­ge­nial than Dil­lon, but whistle­blow­ers have never been pop­u­lar. They will have a ghost­writer in com­mon but the chances are few read­ers will no­tice. That’s the catch with be­ing a ghost: if you do the job well, no­body knows you are there. by Colin Dil­lon with Tom Gilling, was pub­lished this month by Allen & Un­win.

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