The Hilton bombing revisited

Issue 

Conspiracy

Directed by Daryl Dellora

Written by Daryl Dellora and Ian Wansbrough

Produced by Sue Maslin

Film Art Doco (1994)

Screening on ABC TV, Sunday, February 19, 8.30pm

Reviewed by Norm Dixon

February 13 was the 17th anniversary of the bombing of the Sydney Hilton Hotel during the 1978 Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM). A bomb hidden in a litter bin exploded, blasting two people to pieces, injuring another fatally and seriously injuring seven others.

As this compelling documentary demonstrates, not only has the question of who bombed the Hilton never been satisfactorily answered, but evidence points to a significant conspiracy involving state and federal government agencies, security and intelligence services and the police, to prevent the identity of the culprits coming to light.

By the time the credits roll, the viewer has seen enough prima facie evidence that implicates the state itself in the bombing to provide the motive for such an intricate conspiracy. At the micro level, functionaries at every level had an interest in avoiding charges of incompetence, of complacency, of criminal negligence, of murder. At the macro level, the truth would expose the role of the capitalist state in way that a million copies of Lenin's State and Revolution could never do.

With a skilful mix of archival footage and dramatisations, the brutality of the crime is driven home. An eyewitness describes a young survivor "sliced open from the navel to the hip joint". Retired senior constable Terry Griffiths saw "part of somebody's scalp and hair go past me". Griffiths was himself terribly mutilated in the blast.

The core of the documentary is the contention by Griffiths that the Hilton carnage was the result of a coordinated operation by ASIO, the army and the NSW Special Branch.

Griffiths' claims are not new. Green Left Weekly interviewed Griffiths on February 3, 1993. He outlined much of the evidence that appears in Conspiracy, some in greater detail.

He told Green Left Weekly then that the framing of Tim Anderson and the Ananda Marga "was a smokescreen to get away from the truth ... All the evidence that I've ever been given or found myself, or had any access to, has always suggested that the security forces were responsible."

This remains his view today. He told the film makers: "I believe that on the night of the Hilton bombing, the plan was for a bomb warning to be made, for the police department to be officially alerted [and] the area was to be evacuated. The military bomb disposal unit was to come with its remote robot and explode the bomb in front of the national and world's media."

The motive was to secure greater powers for ASIO and to deflect increasing criticism of, and political opposition to, ASIO and the state police special branches.

The plan went terribly wrong when a garbage truck came by 20 minutes earlier than usual. While a warning call was received at police HQ, it was not passed on and the police on duty did not prevent the bomb being placed in the garbage compactor and detonated.

Conspiracy makes a convincing case for Griffiths' hypothesis:

  • Retired police sergeant John Hawtin, who was injured while on duty at the Hilton at the time of the blast and cradled the fatally wounded Constable Paul Burmistriw in his arms until help arrived, tells of being shown in 1981 an entry in the official police occurrence pad that records that a warning was received by NSW Special Branch 10 minutes before the bomb exploded. At the coronial inquiry into the bombing in August 1982, four versions of the occurrence pad were tendered, but none contained the references to the call.

Griffiths was told by a member of Special Branch that the person who made the bomb warning call was a member of Special Branch. He was in a vehicle in George Street with other security force members.

The coronial inquiry — which was a travesty, as the documentary's verbatim dialogue clearly shows — refused to allow Griffiths' counsel to call any police or military witnesses or documents.

  • Forensic evidence from the blasted garbage truck was simply thrown away at a tip without examination.

  • Keith Burley, a retired corporal in the Army Bomb Search Dog Handler Squad told the film makers that his squad was placed on stand-by two weeks before CHOGM. On Thursday before the blast, a phone call from a "security organisation at Victoria Barracks" called the squad off. Estimating the amount of explosive to be at least 12lbs, Burley insisted that "there is no doubt the dogs would have found it from a long way away".

  • Bill Ebb, the council truck driver, disclosed that while the litter bin was overflowing with rubbish, right where world leaders were entering the hotel, police waved on council garbage trucks on three occasions before the blast, "which was a bit of a puzzle".

  • Peter Monaghan, a private secretary to a Democrat senator, was told by people claiming to be from ASIO that a Special Branch observation vehicle was present at the scene, and a bomb disposal unit was also in the vicinity. Monaghan was never called before the coronial inquiry or interviewed by investigators.

  • Then NSW attorney general Frank Walker told the press in 1980 that he had been told by a disaffected CSIRO scientist that ASIO had asked CSIRO to build the Hilton bomb.

Terry Griffiths has been courageously fighting for justice since that awful night in February 1978. The authorities have claimed he is mentally unstable and obsessed. His campaign has come at enormous personal and physical cost. After watching this important documentary, many more people will rally behind his call for a full and proper inquiry.