To tell or not to tell?
To tell or not to tell?

Whether it’s right to be an “informant” is a widely debated topic amongst those who have fallen afoul of the law – as well as those who abide by it.

From movies to podcasts, we all seem fascinated by the question of whether it’s right to ‘snitch’? Sadly, a lot of people just regurgitate their response based on what they’re watching or listening to.

But, when you delve into different kinds of “snitching” you realise that a topic so charged and accepted as one specific thing, is actually a glimpse at the nuances of our world.

So, what are the different types of informants? And what can we learn from them?

Loyal To Me Not To Thee

The first and most obvious type of legitimate informant is “loyal to me not to thee” informant aka the confidential informant. Up until the Wood Royal Commission in the late 1990’s, informants being paid in Australia was commonplace. The exchange of rewards for information still occurs regularly and there are instances where criminals can operate and remain free in exchange for information on other criminals.

The best example of this for people to wrap their minds around was a notorious heroin dealer and suspected multiple murderer Dennis Allen, who managed to avoid gaol during his tenure as Melbourne’s chief heroin baron and local paranoid psychopath.

Allen was known to regularly give members of the Victorian Police information on anyone and everyone and their operations in the criminal underworld. He was even accused of having done drug deals with police including notorious ex-policeman and now-convicted murderer, Roger Rogerson.

But in the criminal world, information is power. Sell heroin, shoot people, stab people, murder people then give some tidbits to the right people and on your way you go.

One can empathize with the deep hate criminals have for this type of person. That said, to just accuse someone of being a dog without proof has been used a way to gain notoriety or denigrate someone you don’t like. If you are going to call someone this type of give-up and give them curry because of it, you better be able to prove it.

Also read: How a criminal record effects your life

Rock And A Hard Place

The second type of informant is the “rock and a hard place” informant, the prosecution’s favourite. Often these are people who have watched too many gangster movies and expect to look up and see “the world is yours” on a blimp. In reality, it’s a more likely gaol cell.

So, what happens when their two worlds, one imagined and one painstakingly real, collide? They scramble to do anything they can to avoid spending a decade inside. Hire the best lawyers (like our team at Australian Criminal Defence), do all the rehabilitation courses, offer the family house as surety, get a letter from the queen… unfortunately, it’s sometimes just not enough.

What then? What happens when detective senior sergeant Smith and Senior Counsel Jones put an offer on the table for time off and a new name, identity, and protection?

If they decide to stick solid and do the hard road, that’s that. But it isn’t always so easy. People have families, they have lives, and they don’t want to deal with the prospect of not having either for a long time. This is where the term “do the crime do the time” becomes very grey. Is it right? Is it wrong? It’s the world.

Nicola Gobo was a former criminal barrister who represented the who’s who of the criminal underworld in Melbourne during the city’s gangland wars. She was rocking and rolling as a legal eagle developing quite the reputation as a terror in the courtroom. If only they knew…

Turns out in 1995, Gobbo was arrested and charged for her second drug-related offence. To avoid prosecution altogether, the then law student signed up to be an informant. She would simultaneously defend her clients, then give them up to police in a weird kind of revolving door of criminal justice.

The “Whistleblower”

The final type of informant is the “whistleblower”. This kind of informer is completely different to the other two. This type of informing is what normal people with a conscience would consider not only as excusable but noble.

This is the kind of informing associated with uncovering the injustice and wrongdoing of governments, organisations, companies, institutions, and people of power. Every day, regular people who witness something that they cannot morally abide by are compelled to disclose it in the interest of the common good.

The key difference between this kind of informant and others? They have everything to lose and nothing to gain but they do the right thing regardless – consequences and punishments be damned.

Afghan Files whistleblower David McBride should be hailed as one of the bravest informers to ever exist and maybe the single concrete refutation to every “lawyer is dishonest and manipulative” joke ever uttered.

He currently is facing life in prison for disclosing alleged war crimes committed by Australian special forces, including the murder of unarmed civilians, in Afghanistan. The kicker? McBride was not only a member of the ADF but a lawyer who was intimately aware of the potential punishment he could face for his disclosures.

After exhausting the channels to report these crimes within the army structure, he eventually disclosed the information to the ABC, who released them as the “Afghan Files”. These reports went on to form the bulk of what is now refed to as the ‘Brereton report inquiry into alleged war crimes by ADF personnel.

Three Informants, Two Different Punishments

Now juxtapose David McBride’s disclosures to Gobbo and Allen’s. Do you see the difference?

While one abused their position, influence, and trust to save their own skin, the other is upholding every ideal that a lawyer, and people in general, should hold dear.

Like everything in life, it is easy to just take a big old brush and paint every kind of a thing with the same color. It is far easier than sitting down and forensically assessing each case. People try to do it with informing.

The reality is however that each case is different and the one commonality we can take from all things discussed above is that the prosecution tendencies and practices in Australia are so bizarre and backwards it’d make more sense to write the laws right to left.

About the Author

Joseph Harb
Joseph Harb

Joseph Harb is the Principal Lawyer at Australian Criminal Defence and one of Sydney’s most respected criminal lawyers. Joseph appears in matters in all jurisdictions in Australia and has consistently achieved a solid reputation in criminal and drug matters Joseph is a keen blog writer and has a focus on social justice issues and encroachment on civil liberties

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