Clues in the aftermath
achel Landers begins her gripping book on the 1978 Sydney Hilton hotel bombing with a tantalising anecdote. “I’m sitting in the Tea Room in Sydney’s Queen Victoria Building,” she writes, “across from a man whose name I can’t tell you. Let’s call him Fred.” Fred is a “former senior detective in his late sixties who was lionised for his skill in running a series of spectacular covert operations in the 1990s”.
Furtive, bordering on paranoid, Fred purports to have the inside information that, nearly four decades on, will finally lay the case to rest. Only he doesn’t and, more surprisingly, Landers tells us that he doesn’t. Fred’s answer is the same as that put forward by conspiracy theorists almost since the day the bomb exploded, killing two council workers and a policeman. Fred blames ASIO, or military intelligence, or the NSW Special Branch, all of which supposedly stood to benefit from a terrorist attack on Australian soil.
Far from being the man to answer all of Landers’s questions, Fred turns out to be “just another person tugging at the edges of this tatty, fractured saga”. We are only on page three and the author has already introduced — and dismissed — her own Deep Throat. Either Landers has a lot more Freds up her sleeve, readers might think, or else her book’s title is a tease (it’s worth noting that the title is a question and there is no subtitle promising an answer).
The Hilton bombing, which appeared to target Commonwealth leaders attending a conference in Sydney, continues to be described as an “unsolved” terrorist attack. It would be more accurate to say the case has been “solved” a number of times, only for each solution to be found wanting.
A 1982 coronial inquest into the Hilton bombing found a prima facie case of triple murder against two members of the Ananda Marga organisation, Paul Alister and Ross Dunn, based on the dubious testimony of a police informer, Richard Seary. The case was not pursued for lack of evidence.
In 1989 a former member of Ananda Marga, Evan Pederick, confessed to planting the bomb under orders from the group’s press officer, Tim Anderson. Pederick’s evidence was riddled with errors but both men were convicted. Anderson was released and acquitted on appeal after serving less than a year of a 14-year sentence, with chief justice Murray Gleeson excoriating various aspects of the crown’s case. The hapless Pederick ended up serving eight years.
The challenge for any new investigator is either to unearth new evidence or to extract new meaning from the copious information in the archives. Landers, an accomplished filmmaker who is head of documentary at the Australian Film, Television and Radio School, has opted primarily for the latter.
Her painstaking analysis of the material stored at State Records in western Sydney and elsewhere is methodical and generally convincing. The scepticism she brings to her reading of the documents helps expose the implausibility of much that passed for evidence in the early phase of the investigation.
Unhampered by the political agendas and professional rivalries that compromised the work of the various agencies — the Hilton bombing taskforce, ASIO, Special Branch — charged with investigating the explosion, Land- ers attacks the archive boxes with a level-headed objectivity lamentably (but perhaps understandably) absent in the aftermath of the bombing. Amid the self-contradictions and improbabilities that made up Seary’s evidence, she is careful to point out what was plausible and what did make sense.
That she is able to guide us through the tangled web of conflicting (and conflicted) evidence while maintaining a compelling narrative testifies to her skills as a storyteller, despite what seems to me her misjudged decision to write this book entirely in the present tense. While this device gives the text a certain immediacy, it also has the effect of collapsing everything — the bombing, the events that preceded the bombing, the police investigation, court proceedings stretching over decades, and the author’s research nearly 40 years after the event — into the same present-day time frame. Some readers may find this confusing.
What, then, of the question asked on the cover? If Pederick’s confession to having planted the bomb was discredited, and the courts released Anderson, and nothing came of the 1982 coronial inquest, who did bomb the Hilton? Landers cites a newspaper story published in 2003 that “plainly states that ‘Abhiik Kumar was the mastermind of the Hilton hotel bombing’ ” and comments that “this is pretty much what all the official agencies involved in the investigation of the bombing believe”.
Kumar, one of the many aliases of the American-born leader of the Ananda Marga in Australia, has long been a person of interest to detectives but has never been charged in relation to the bombing. After one of the author’s friends suggests she “jump on a plane and confront Kumar”, Landers says she “cannot see the point of this”. The reason she gives is that when she embarked on her research she “made a vow not to trust the living”.
This may make forensic sense, but as the conclusion to a thought-provoking book about one of Australia’s enduring modern mysteries, I’m not sure it’s good enough. It feels like a copout. On the other hand, you have to admire the nerve of an author who has laid out all the evidence and has every confidence her readers will draw the right conclusion. is a writer and critic.
Wreckage caused by the Sydney Hilton bombing in 1978