Saturday, June 17, 2006

Sky Blue

There can be no doubt P&O Cruises has a lot of explaining to do about its reaction to the death of one of its passengers, apparently at the hands of rapists, in 2002.

The events following the discovery of deceased passenger Dianne Brimble aboard the Pacific Sky are currently being further outed in a second stage of coronial hearings under NSW Magistrate Jacqueline Milledge.

More so than the hearings earlier this year, witness statements have now exposed gaping holes in the company's procedures for dealing with a suspicious death.

It's clear P&O has serious questions to answer about why a potential crime scene was allowed to be interfered with by those who were implicated in the death and why these people were allowed to continue roaming the ship allegedly harassing female passengers, some of them under the age of 16.

And it is beyond belief that a company of P&O's size and age did not have adequate procedures in place for responding to such a scenario. Perhaps they were lured into apathy by years of encountering only natural death among passengers, as one imagines that they must frequently experience among the elderly and ill.

But there is a major difference between heart failure and manslaughter and it may be that the cruise line has compounded its lack of preparedness and bungled follow-up by attempting to cover or, at least, downplay the event enough not to attract media attention.

Ironically, the Sky itself proved more than able to do just that in the following years as the media pounced gleefully on each tale of mechanical breakdowns afflicting the ageing vessel and causing cruises to be cut short.

The media were never short of a quote or two from a passenger complaining that their holiday had been ruined although it would appear the majority of passengers were quite happy to lose a few days off their cruise in return for often generous compensation by the line including refunds, discounts on future voyages and cash credits of hundreds of dollars to their on-board spending accounts.

P&O generally and the Pacific Sky specifically had become a favourite whipping boy of the Australian media.

But the start of the inquest into the exceptionally ill-fated 2002 cruise that allegedly led to death in Cabin D184 gave the media a poster child in the form of the tragically unfortunate Mrs Brimble.

The facts in the case so far appear to be these:

  • That the divorced Mrs Brimble saved for some time to afford her 'holiday of a lifetime' aboard the ship with her 12 year old daughter and some friends.

  • That on the very first night she had the ultimate misfortune to meet in a nightclub with an unsavory number of male passengers who either knew each other previously or had been assigned a group cabin together.

  • That Mrs Brimble at some stage received a dose of the date-rape drug GHB and was photographed in various sex acts with one or more of the men in their cabin.

  • That she was later discovered by these men to be dead and that dumping her body overboard was discussed.

  • That P&O failed to secure the cabin, allowing the men to go inside to retrieve their belongings and potentially remove evidence, and that the men subsequently harassed others on board the ship.
The coroner's inquest is revealing that the group of men involved were clearly animals - a tape recording of a police interview with one of their number confirms this in a nauseating manner:

Glebe Coroner's Court has heard this week how one of the men, Letterio "Leo" Silvestri, showed no remorse in his interview with police after Brimble's tragic death.

In a taped interview held in the days after Brimble's death, Silvestri, with sickening detachment, described how Brimble had ruined his holiday by dying on the floor of his cabin.

The transcripts of the taped conversation were heard at the coronial inquest into the death of Brimble this week. In the interview, Silvestri is heard saying: "Didn't want to know about her. She smelt, she was black and she was ugly ...

"Anything that's over 60 kilos I don't talk to. I just brushed her off, I didn't want to speak to her ... yuck, ugly dog, just go talk to someone else. Ring the RSPCA."
Mrs Brimble's death was, most likely, manslaughter preceeded by rape and various forms of sexual degradation by her tormenters. Yet it will likely be a very difficult case to prosecute should charges even be laid. It's quite possible that Magistrate Milledge is, in fact, doing her utmost to punish the men in the court of public opinion now because she realises that criminal convictions will be impossible to achieve in the future.

Unfortunately, she and various lawyers are also helping, sometimes rather overtly, to lay the groundwork for civil action to be taken by the Brimble family against the cruise line. Speaking of a promotional postcard that has recently emerged, she said:

...(it) was sexist and could promote "certain attitudes" among male passengers.
More of the postcard shortly. But it will be exceedingly disappointing if efforts to help the Brimbles exact some recompense from P&O for their sins should also provide the real killers of Mrs Brimble any form of defence.

However, much as P&O has a case to answer and one would like Mrs Brimble's killers to do so too, the Australian media, led by the Sydney Telegraph and News Limited, also has to answer for its reporting which has distastefully wallowed in the salacious detail and grim tragedy of the case with barely hidden glee.

'Credibility lost at sea' is the headline on a Telegraph round-up of the case to date but the story calls to question the credibility of journalists as much as the cruise line.

Leading on the issue of a P&O publicity campaign 12 months after Mrs Brimble's death (being the postcard mentioned above), it first gets its facts wrong,

It was late 2003 when the creative types in P&O's marketing department embarked on a daring new advertising campaign to get revellers back on board its ships. The formula was simple: promise young men endless booze and casual sex and they won't be able to refuse."Seamen wanted" read one postcard, accompanied by a picture of sunbathing, bikini-clad glamours. "More sun. More girls. More guys. There's nothing else a guy needs to know," the ad declared.
It would be a poor campaign selling the availability of 'more girls' that informed its audience that there were also 'more guys'. The card in fact promoted:

"More girls, more sun, more fun."
and were, though tasteless and ill-considered, less provocative than many postcards sold today in tourist shops on the Gold Coast.

Then The Telegraph's report falls into a time warp in which promotional postcards from 2003 were somehow responsible for influencing rapists in 2002:

From the moment they stepped on board the Pacific Sky, the eight persons of interest... appeared to have sex, drugs and booze on their mind. The brochures had promised girls galore (emphasis added) and they did not expect to be disappointed.
Magistrate Milledge has previously hinted at an 'attitudinal problem' aboard the ship. The Telegraph laments:

Cruises used to be for families. The kids could entertain themselves by day in the games room or by the pool, leaving the parents to share a meal or a quiet afternoon drink on deck.
Used to be for families? Really? In the 1980s, P&O's Fairstar was known widely among sex-seeking singles for what were dubbed anecdotally 'Clap Cruises'.

The Fairstar might well have played host to many families at the time but it also took on board thousands like the single mum neighbour of an acquaintance of mine who saved her welfare and parked the kid with relatives while she did a Fairstar cruise in search of 'more guys, more sun, more fun' and came back with a dose, the emergence of which some days after her return was not a cause for concern but simply amusement and a course of antibiotics.

Even today, the price of promiscuity about that particularly ship is still cause for amusement. As recently as October last year, this was a post to the Sydney Morning Morning Herald Newsblog on suggested names for Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes' child:

Fairstar Cruise - Because many an unexpected pregnancy has resulted from one of these.
However, to be the centre of such notoriety fell from favour and P&O worked hard to reinvent the image of cruising as a holiday option for all ages and especially for families. They have not been unsuccessful - many thousands of family groups travel on P&O ships each year.

Regular readers of The Thin Man Returns will be aware that Nora and I have taken two P&O cruises in the past two years, aboard the Pacific Sun as a couple travelling alone and aboard the Pacific Star accompanied by three generations of a family with whom we are good friends.

We have found the ship passengers to be segmented into three groups - families and couples, the elderly, and singles (of all ages). While these segments may come together for some group activities, they generally enjoy their time at sea separately, not only in the areas of the ship that they frequent, but also in time.

Only an idiot or someone looking to be offended who is not among the singles group would go wandering around, for instance, the back of vessel pool areas at 4 in the morning.

Of course, that didn't stop a Channel 7 stooge from doing just that aboard the Star earlier this year but the intention there was to be offended.

The Telegraph reports:

The company's spin doctors have understandably tried to portray Brimble's death as a one-off tragedy. But the truth is the debauched behaviour onboard the Pacific Sky was by no means isolated.
Actually, Mrs Brimble's death is a one-off. What The Telegraph's anonymous reporters are about to salivate over falls far, far short of rape and murder.

Michelle Donaldson, 36, left Sydney on New Year's Eve in 2000 on the Pacific Sky for what she hoped would be the trip of a lifetime.

Travelling with a girlfriend, she planned two weeks of sunbathing, swimming and reading. But the reality was very different. The pair wanted to avoid the raucous behaviour on the lower decks, so they paid $4000 each for a luxury suite.

This week, Donaldson told The Saturday Daily Telegraph "there were people having sex in the walkways, the place was just disgusting. The ship was full of packs of men just roaming around.

"They would literally wait outside the lifts and wait for some poor drunk woman so that they could pounce on her."
But our Star companions have twice also travelled aboard the Sky with their two children and report none of the types of behaviour alleged by Ms Donaldson. In fact, it would be fair to assume that if this were a common problem, P&O would not be attracting many families at all and perhaps Ms Donaldson was 'doing a Channel 7' - expecting trouble and going out of her way to find it.

That's not to say that it would be impossible to accidentally stumble across a couple doing in a corridor or in a quiet corner of a deck area what they should be doing in their cabin. But one would contend it's most likely to happen, if at all, in the small hours of the night and would be no more than one might encounter if one deliberately wandered late at night around the corridors of any large hotel.

We are living in an age of sexual exhibitionism and diminished inhibition.

Furthermore, many of the single sexual 'predators' aboard cruises are women of Ms Donaldson's age and older. Ashore at Port Vila this year awaiting transport to an organised activity in town, Nora and I overheard a group of six middle aged women bemoaning a lack of single men on ship, one of the women bitterly complaining that a 19 year old male she had attempted to chat up had boasted that the gender imbalance was working very much in his favour. The women were hoping for better luck that night and were filling in the daylight hours until then with a jet boat ride and duty-free shopping.

Back in 2002 aboard the Sky, passengers recall, the men involved in the death of Mrs Brimble were on the hunt no matter what time of day they were encountered:

Tiffany McDonald, one of the terrified girls bailed up by the men in her cabin on the first day, described an encounter with Silvestri on the day of Brimble's death. She was queuing for lunch in the ship's restaurant - just hours after Brimble had been found unconscious on the floor of Silvestri's cabin - when he came up and kissed her on the cheek. She said: "I asked him what was going on in his room and he said something about, 'They have still got it as a crime scene' and he started laughing. "I felt everywhere we went, one of them was there. I didn't feel safe."
The fact is, this group was extraordinary - a gang of genuinely vicious predators shooting fish in a barrel. And the later the hour, the more dangerous they became.

The Telegraph reports:

Jessica Kornacki was just 15 at the time, but Silvestri apparently saw her as fair game. She had her first encounter with the "tall, scary guy" at the ship's Starlight Disco a few days into the cruise.

It was after midnight and Kornacki was partying with her (also 15 year old) friend.
yet does not question why the parents of 15 year old girls have allowed them to go adult nightclubbing after midnight.

While it could be argued that P&O security staff should have refused entry to the youngsters, it's quite likely that they could pass for 18, as can many girls of that age, especially when they want to.

Besides, parents can hardly complain that someone isn't looking out for their kids when they allow them to roam out anywhere after midnight.

Nor can they complain if they also provide them with the means to purchase alcohol. In recent times, P&O has issued children's cruise cards, the credit card-like devices used by all passengers to, among other things, pay for drinks and provide ID, with the corners clipped off for instant recognition. But some parents actually loan their children their cruise cards so they can purchase alcohol after mum and dad have gone to bed.

Magistrate Milledge may bemoan 'attitudinal problems' aboard ship but they are simply a reflection of broader attitudinal problems in our society at large.

The McDonald and Muller families were travelling together. The Telegraph reports that shortly after boarding:

The couples' four daughters, all under 18, insisted on sleeping in the same room and their parents eventually relented, unaware the girls would be in the cabin next door to four of the men now of interest in the Brimble case.

The inquest was told their bags were still packed when Dragan Losic, Silvestri, Petar Pantic and Mark Wilhelm stormed into their room, closing the door behind them.

One of the girls chided Wilhelm... about a black eye he was sporting. He punched the wall above her head. The men eventually walked out, leaving the girls badly shaken.
Mum Leann McDonald also:

spotted them as troublemakers at the traditional "sail away" party on the top deck. "Have a go at them, those guys, they look like they're going to be trouble," she remembered telling her husband.

Joanne Muller, on the cruise with her husband, three children and friends, said she recalled seeing Mrs Brimble in the ship's Starlight Disco earlier that night. She had been talking to the group of "burly" men now implicated in her death and appeared to be "drunk or under the influence of something. It seemed like she was letting loose more than other guests," Mrs Muller said.
Later still:

Having left the disco at about 2am, Mrs Muller said she awoke some time later to banging, talking and a commotion next door. When asked by counsel assisting the inquest, Ron Hoenig, what she had heard, Mrs Muller broke down. "I heard the woman say: "I'm not like that and I don't do that sort of thing'," she said tearfully.
but she and her husband appear to have done nothing, no calling security, no intervening, despite all they had witnessed earlier, the high level of noise required to be heard between cabins and what was obviously a distressed protest against unwanted sexual advances.

Yet Mrs Muller complains that following the revelation of Mrs Brimble's death:

A request to P&O staff that her family be moved fell on deaf ears, she said. "Not one single person came to us to say 'are you okay?'," Mrs Muller said.
How different it might have been for Mrs Brimble if Mr and Mrs Muller had knocked on the door of the neighbouring cabin and asked 'are you okay?'

Meanwhile, continuing to whip up as much outrage as possible, The Telegraph suggests that the men in whose cabin Mrs Brimble died were somehow treated better than the McDonalds:

On the morning of Brimble's death, (Mrs) McDonald... said she saw some crew members ushering two of the men into the cabin so that they could collect their bags. She said: "They were telling them to get their stuff and come straight out of the room."

But when it came to helping other passengers, staff were not so accommodating.
and recounts how:

McDonald's 16-year-old daughter, Tiffany, insisted on sleeping with her mother after Brimble's death - terrified that the men who had entered her cabin on that first day would return.

When McDonald asked for her family to be moved to a different area of the ship, the staff refused. She said: "P&O did not care. No one came and asked if we were OK. We were sort of fobbed off. We asked them to move us because our children were frightened. We were more or less ignored."
Pretty much like Mrs Brimble's pleas were ignored by the McDonalds' travelling companions.

The Telegraph pontificates:

As each day brings more sordid evidence to the public's attention, it is difficult to believe that many holidaymakers would be rushing out to book a cruise.
Then demonstrates the hypocrisy of the media in general, its utter detachment from reality and yet another aspect of its inability to grasp and examine the wider issues of any matter by shaking its head in morally surprised disbelief:

Then again, the promise of round-the-clock partying will always appeal to some.
The last time I looked, it appealed to many journalists and their ageing Murdoch managers. The Gold Coast Bulletin's Go Girls column is a weekly celebration of drunkenness and loose behaviour by three airheaded female journalists who at various times have detailed consuming vast amounts of alcohol as part of a normal night out and advocated prowling hotel corridors at night in the hope of bumping into celebrity sportsmen.

Journalists have always been of doubtful integrity but now, in an industry that has become less about information than titilation, they can claim no moral superiority whatsoever.

Amy Mudge... one of the girls harassed by Silvestri, made an interesting remark as she left the witness box. When Coroner Jacqueline Milledge asked her if she would go on another cruise, Mudge replied: "I want to go on another one. I had such a good time."
Journalists would have it that ordinary people should heed their warnings and run scared of everything. But most people have a way of seeing through the hysteria and also know what it takes - at least a little bit - to stay out of trouble.

Amy Mudge was the 15 year old nightclubbing cohort of Jessica Kornacki. It's ironic that Kornacki, described by The Telegraph as 'bright and articulate', perhaps escaped with her life -
Silvestri asked Kornacki to come back to his room. "He asked me back to his room and offered to pay me to dance to music videos. After that he offered to buy me a drink. I said 'no' and we walked away," she told the inquest.
- because the 15 year old was more street savvy than Mrs Brimble, who family members have admitted was perhaps somewhat naive.

Perhaps Mrs Brimble spent her shortened life not reading the Murdoch media and not getting blind drunk at nightclubs like young female Murdoch journalists.

-- Nick

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