Corby saga turns to farce

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 22 April, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 22 April, 2007, 12:00am

It had all the hallmarks of melodrama: a pretty woman left to rot in a third-world jail after claiming she was fitted up on drug smuggling charges. Almost three years later the Schapelle Corby saga has become a full-blown soap opera, populated by cat-fighting drama queens, accusations of betrayal and more twists than an episode of 24.

To satisfy the seemingly insatiable public appetite back home in Australia, rival TV news shows are fighting it out over every bit of news. There is even a best-selling autobiography from the 'wronged' heroine. And as with all good soap operas, the newest plot lines are commanding the most attention.

As the Australian government does its utmost to seize the sizeable proceeds from the book, Schapelle's sister, Mercedes Corby, is embroiled in court action with a TV network that aired allegations by a former friend that she was a drug dealer.

Yet in the deafening furore, the central character's plight - and the real substance of her complaint - has been all but forgotten, as she languishes in Bali's Kerobokan Prison.

Questions over Schapelle Corby's guilt may have raged since customs officers found more than 4kg of cannabis stuffed inside a bodyboard bag when she arrived at Bali's Denpasar Airport in October 2004. But few argued that the 20-year jail term subsequently handed down was anything other than draconian.

As Corby awaits the result of a last-ditch appeal to Indonesia's Supreme Court against that sentence, judges in Australia are considering several unexpected ramifications.

Soon after the 29-year-old's memoir - My Story - was published last November, Australian prosecutors began moves to seize any profits under the Proceeds of Crime Act.

Documents lodged in court revealed the cat-and-mouse game played by police and Corby's supporters. Federal investigators not only tracked the movements of the book's ghost-writer, journalist Kathryn Bonella, and staff at publisher Pan Macmillan, but seized their e-mails.

A month before publication, Bonella wrote to publisher Tom Gilliat voicing concern that the book's proceeds could be frozen under laws preventing criminals from profiting from their crimes.

'My understanding is that you're at no risk since the act is to stop those convicted of a crime profiting from it [and even that's arguable in court],' replied Mr Gilliat.

The publishing contract gave Mercedes Corby 85 per cent of an agreed A$350,000 (HK$2.27 million) advance, and a substantial percentage from syndication rights, which included a A$110,000 deal with a women's magazine.

The publisher suggested Mercedes send an invoice so she could be 'paid before the book becomes public knowledge', and by December almost A$268,000 had been wired to her Indonesian husband's bank account in Bali.

Two months later, Australia's federal director of prosecutions went to Queensland's District Court in an attempt to freeze any funds the Corby family received from the book and media deals. The court heard that police suspected the payments to Mercedes were meant for Schapelle, but a judge rejected the application on the grounds that the conviction took place outside Australia.

Last month, that ruling was overturned by the state's Court of Appeal, which accepted the money could be frozen because it was generated within Australia. Both hearings were held in secret, primarily to prevent the Corbys from finding out and disposing of the funds.

While the court documents - revealed by The Australian newspaper - unveiled the normally secretive details of celebrity book deals, the Corby saga has also provided the foundation for an astonishing battle between two popular TV shows.

For years the so-called current affairs programmes have been immersed in a ratings war, dishing out sensationalist stories on such tabloid fare as as miracle diets and welfare cheats.

The latest feeding frenzy began after one of the Corby family's closest friends made startling allegations that appeared to throw doubt on Schapelle's claims of innocence.

After the conviction in 2005, Jodi Power said her pal had been stitched up, adding: 'We'll keep fighting for justice for as long as it takes.'

But in December she sat down for an interview with the Seven Network's Today Tonight and changed her story. In a blistering tirade, the mother-of-two said Mercedes was involved in drug dealing and had admitted smuggling cannabis inside her body into Indonesia. She attempted to entice Ms Power into taking cannabis there, too.

'[Mercedes] asked if I would ever do it, if I would ever take drugs over and I said, 'no, I've got two kids and I wouldn't do that',' Ms Power told the programme. 'And she went on to tell me that she had taken [drugs to Bali] before.'

Ms Power is understood to have received more than A$100,000 for the interview, and although it was recorded in December, Today Tonight executives waited two months - until the first evening of the official ratings season - before unleashing its explosive contents.

As the show's ratings skyrocketed, Nine Network rival A Current Affair hit back, screening an interview with Mercedes slamming the claims. Both shows sought out other family members and acquaintances. Those who backed Ms Power - like her mother - appeared on Today Tonight. Those who didn't - like her ex-husband - opted for the rival show.

Ms Power took three lie detector tests - passing two - but a body language expert on the rival show concluded she was making it all up. Mercedes responded by agreeing to take her own lie detector test.

When that failed to materialise, a Today Tonight team headed to Bali and managed to arrange a meeting with Mercedes, who lives on the island with her husband and three children.

Reporter Brian Seymour said he just wanted to 'chat, like mature adults', but Mercedes bolted when confronted by five TV cameras, Ms Power and a polygraph machine.

The Corby family's supporters were outraged, alleging a cruel attempt to engineer a confrontation between the two friends.

It got worse. The meeting happened two days after an Indonesian air crash in which an Australian government official closely involved with the Corby case had died.

A Current Affair then told viewers that Mercedes had been convinced to go along with the charade after a private investigator employed by the Seven Network told her he worked for the government, and had been given 'bombshell' information on the Corby case by the dead official's husband. Seven Network heads

were livid. 'This is a complete fabrication, a total distortion of exactly what took place,' said presenter Anna Coren.

Yet another lie-detector test, this time on the private detective, proved inconclusive.

Earlier this month Mercedes made good on her threat to sue over Ms Power's claims and filed a defamation suit against her ex-pal and the Seven Network. Legal experts believe the network faces a tough task to mount a successful defence.

'If there is truth in these claims why wouldn't she [Ms Power] have gone to police instead of going on TV and getting paid for it?' asked Mercedes' lawyer, Bill Kalantzis.

Mercedes and her family also appear confident of keeping the proceeds from Schapelle's book, which has sold more than 100,000 copies.

'The horse has well and truly bolted on this one,' one unnamed supporter told Sydney's Daily Telegraph. 'It's the first time in 21/2 years that the Corbys have had a win. The money's in Bali in the account of a foreign national and I don't see how the Australian government can possibly touch it.'

For Schapelle, cooling her heels in the Bali prison, that will be a hollow victory. With the final appeal destined to fail, her starring role in this particular soap opera has years to run.