Schapelle Corby's protesters of innocence
MICHAEL BACHELARD AND MICHAEL LALLO
As he lay dying, TV mogul and Australia's richest man, Kerry Packer, called Uniting Church pastor Tim Costello to his bedside.
Packer, still supremo of Australia's Channel Nine, was in a confessional mood. They spoke about leadership and ethics and God, who Packer had no time for. But it was December 2005, and even as death approached, there was no avoiding the story of the year - Schapelle Corby.
In the previous eight months, Packer's TV network had become a kind of Corby innocence factory, taking the unlikely material of a part-time beauty student accused of drug smuggling, and forging from her a martyr.
The story, which Nine sewed up early with exclusive access agreements, made the network millions, and ultimately ensured Corby became a household name, and a part of the zeitgeist.
''I said to Kerry, 'What do you think? Is she guilty?' '' Costello recalls asking at their deathbed meeting. ''And Kerry said, 'Yes, I think she is.' I remember saying, 'But Nine is the cheerleader for her innocence.' And Kerry told me that this was how current affairs TV works - the audience was totally convinced of her innocence and so the network goes with what the public feels passionate about.''
Costello says he wondered at the time how that squared with their conversation about ethics and leadership.
Nine years later, she is back in the headlines as the governor of Bali's Kerobokan prison confirmed on Sunday she may be released on Monday.
However, governor Farid Junaedi said he did not know what time she might walk free because, "we are still waiting for the documents" from Jakarta.
Polling shows that public belief in Corby's innocence has collapsed from 75 per cent at the height of the frenzy to just 10 per cent, though sympathy for her plight in jail remains strong.
The innocence lobby, however, churns on. Stoking it are the former Nine Network 60 Minutes producer who started it all and the Corby family, along with Australia's foremost UFO conspiracy theorist, a psychiatric nurse and a ruthless band of online activists some describe as a cult.
Between them they try to ensure no deviance from the theory that Corby's boogie board bag was used by Qantas baggage handlers to ferry their drugs, then she was condemned by a political and media conspiracy of silence.
Kathryn Bonella, then a producer at 60 Minutes, was the first to see the potential power of Corby's tale of an innocent abroad.
One journalistic source recalls that when Corby was arrested on October 8, 2004, a large Australian press contingent was already in Bali to cover the second anniversary of the Bali bombing four days later. Bonella started calling people from Sydney. Her pitch, according to one reporter, was blunt: ''Tell the Corby family not to f*** around with any other media organisation ... 60 Minutes is the only one that can do it. We push governments to act".
It worked. Journalist Liz Hayes was the first to interview Corby, a month after her arrest, in a police station exclusive for 60 Minutes, produced by Bonella.
After that, few other media outlets got a look in. Corby was Nine's girl and Bonella their contact.
About the time Packer died, in late 2005, Bonella left the network to, in her words, ''work with Schapelle''. She ghost-wrote the prisoner's best-selling book My Story, then books Hotel Kerobokan and Snowing in Bali. She now lives in Bali and, according to multiple sources, acts as a de facto Corby family publicist.
Bonella is also rumoured to be the one negotiating on the family's behalf for the biggest payday of all - the exclusive post-release tell-all interview - though Bonella says she has only passed on a few messages to the family.
There is no doubt of Bonella's sincerity. In her 2006 book she announced: ''Schapelle is one of the most inspiring people I've ever met. She is innocent, stuck in a hellhole for something she didn't do, yet handles her situation with so much dignity ... There is no question that Schapelle is innocent. None at all.''
Bonella declined to comment on her role, citing ''Fairfax's tendency to report with bias on this subject''.
Nine years into their public prominence, clearly the idea of granting exclusive access to favoured media organisations has stuck with the Corby family.
They dole out comments sparingly and sometimes for money, and whole groups (including Fairfax and all of its journalists) are cut off from access over perceived bias and slights that are sometimes years old.
Much of the heavy lifting on the innocence story is now done by the contributors to a website, The Expendable Project, and its ''official Facebook group'', titled ''People for Schapelle Corby''.
Expendable has posted a trove of documents it asserts proves Corby's innocence, but its centrepiece is an amateur film alleging a cover-up involving Australian and Indonesian authorities, which also implicates the media.
A cohort of pro-Corby shock troops who link heavily to Expendable trawls the internet for mentions of her name, then bully people who deviate from their view.
A Queensland woman, Diane Frola, the co-founder of the Australian UFO Research Network, has uploaded two videos to it. According to her, governments are suppressing evidence that prove both Corby's innocence and the existence of UFOs.
Expendable denies links with the Corby family itself to ''mitigate the risk that the project could be used against them'' - but the morning after Friday's parole announcement in Jakarta, Corby's mother, Rosleigh Rose, appeared wearing an Expendable TV T-shirt. Bonella likewise said she had ''no association'' with Expendable, ''although I do think the website has some interesting info''.
People for Schapelle Corby is presided over by Queensland psychiatric nurse Kim Bax. The language from contributors on the site is frequently vitriolic. Actress Krew Boylan, who plays Corby in the TV drama Schapelle, is labelled ''a disgrace ... unaustralian [sic], a stain on womanhood''.
Noting the anger there, and fearful of disruptions, when production house Fremantle Media was producing the telemovie, it used secret code names during filming and kept locations under wraps.
Approached for comment by Fairfax Media, The Expendable Project's ''gatekeepers'' issued a ''yellow alert'' about this reporter's potential ''hostile initiative''.
Their response was: ''The Expendable Project has no comment to make to Fairfax Media, its employees, agents, or proxies, on this or any other matter.''
Kay Danes is a woman who should, by rights, be embraced by the pro-Corby lobby. She has spent 10 years advocating through her non-profit organisation for human rights, including those of prisoners in foreign jails. It is work for which she recently received an Order of Australia Medal. She herself was tortured in a Laotian prison in 2000.
But on the online pro-Corby forums, she has been subject to abuse and ridicule by what she describes as the Expendable ''cult''. Her crime is to have pointed out online that their arguments and documents do not constitute proof that a court could accept.
''I have never said a bad word about Schapelle. I have only ever pointed out some very real facts,'' Danes says.
The result, she says, has been ''stalking ... intense cyber-bullying, harassment, character assassination and threats''.
She has at times reported Expendable posters to police for threatening behaviour.
Danes says she is sympathetic to Corby herself, and her long prison ordeal, but ''a group of misguided supporters ... have hurt Schapelle's support base far more than they have helped''.
- Sydney Morning Herald