Top cop who led Bali bombing investigation confident new show will get it right

The man who led the international contingent of the police investigation into the Bali bombing won’t be passing judgement on the actor who plays him when drama series Bali 2002 drops on Stan on September 25. Well, not immediately at least.

“My wife and I are going overseas on holiday, so I’ll be away when it’s on,” says Graham Ashton, the former AFP officer and, later, chief commissioner of Victoria Police. “But my family are going to watch it, and I’ll no doubt get a look at it when I come back.”

Ashton insists he isn’t too concerned about what Richard Roxburgh might do with the role. “He’s not doing an impersonation of me, it’s an interpretation,” he says. “It’s not me so much – it’s a dramatised version. Obviously, it’s not a documentary. I won’t be looking at it thinking, ‘this is real, this is not’.”

The investigation into the terrorist attack of October 12, 2002, which left 202 people, including 88 Australians, dead, was very much a team effort, Ashton is at pains to point out. And though it is a major chapter in his life, when his family watch the series they will largely be seeing his part in it for the first time.

“To be honest, we haven’t talked about it much,” he says. “My eldest was only a baby when it happened, so they don’t have a living memory of it, and it’s not something they ask about it, or I talk about, really.”

Do you think that might change after the show airs? “Maybe,” he says. “Maybe.”

The quietly spoken former policeman, who now works as a special advisor to fraud investigators Duxton Hill, has shared his memories with Roxburgh, though. “The first conversation went for a few hours, and it was amazing how much of it came back to me,” he says. “Once you start recalling it, there’s a lot of detail there, really.”

In Bali 2002 Richard Roxburgh plays Graham Ashton, who led the international investigating team.Credit:Tony Mott/Justin McManus

Not everyone will welcome the rehashing of such awful memories for the purposes of entertainment, no matter how well-informed or -intentioned it may be. And whether Bali 2002 turns out to be a good idea or not will very much depend on how the show’s makers balance the desire to tell a story of great impact to many countries besides Australia (not least Indonesia) with the risk of re-traumatising people.

“Particularly for the families of victims, I think it’s really important that respect is paid, that there’s a solemnity to it,” Ashton says. “And Richard and the producer I’ve spoken to give me confidence they will do that.”

Ashton was first approached to share his recollections many years ago by the producers of an earlier attempt to tell the story. That show never eventuated, though, with the project collapsing four days into production in October 2005 when Bali was rocked by another terrorist attack. (Roxburgh had been due to appear in that series too, in an entirely different role.)

Sean Keenan as AFL footballer Jason McCartney.Credit:Tony Mott/Stan

Stan has been keen to emphasise that Bali 2002 will tell the story from the local perspective as well as the Australian one, and to point to the involvement of Indonesians in front of and behind the camera. However, the first trailer for the show, released today, is clearly tailored to Australian audiences.

In it, Roxburgh’s Ashton says, “the number of dead and dying keeps growing, and most of them are Australian”.

More Australians died in the Bali bombings than any other nationality, but the majority of the dead were not, in fact, Australian; while the line isn’t technically wrong, it does point to the risk of appearing insensitive if the Australian perspective dominates too much.

Saskia Archer, Elizabeth Cullen, Sophia Forrest and Sri Ayu Jati Kartika in a scene from Bali 2002.Credit:Tony Mott/Stan

The focus on Jason McCartney (Sean Keenan) is likely to be far less problematic though, with the former AFL footballer widely regarded as a genuine hero for his actions in the immediate aftermath of the attack and in his later efforts to return to his sport despite horrific injuries.

The North Melbourne forward suffered second-degree burns to more than 50 per cent of his body in the bombings, but believing himself to be only lightly injured in the blast, he turned his attention to helping others.

It was only after being evacuated to Melbourne that the full extent of his injuries became apparent, with the footballer almost dying on the operating table.

Incredibly, McCartney returned to AFL the following June, dressed in long sleeves and protective gloves and bandages. He even managed to kick a goal in his comeback game before announcing his retirement soon after the final siren sounded.

Bali 2002 is on Stan from September 25. Stan is owned by Nine, which also owns this masthead.

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