The life and death of Peter Roebuck: a good man, a bad man, or something in between

I was late to hear about Peter Roebuck’s death. Camping in a state forest near Narrandera, with New South Welsh clocks showing the early hours of Sunday, it was just one part of an outside world kept at bay. Come Monday evening, the news as fresh a shock as in any earlier iteration, I found myself tracing the story’s evolution back to its beginning.

The process has been desperately sad. As a fellow writer of sport, I held Roebuck above most others. As someone for whom cricket is about emotional resonance more than entertainment, Roebuck’s voice was part of my life, the soundscape of summer nostalgia as much as highway air past the car window or the shriek of seagulls.

At the same time, while bleakly, it has been instructive and fascinating to see how the various strands of media handle a case so complex and ambiguous. Roebuck has died leaving more question marks than the most enthusiastic YouTube commenter, and given the closed nature of South African policing, straight answers may never be forthcoming.

Reports through Sunday were brief, bare, and often wrong. Found dead in a hotel room. Fallen from a window. Police had spoken to him earlier that day. Were with him at the time. Visions of foul play circled thick and dark as evening bats.

On Monday came the obituaries. “Tragedy far greater than 47 all out has struck cricket, and this should be a Roebuck column. But it isn’t one, and can’t be one, and never will be one again, because the tragedy is Peter Roebuck. He is dead.” So wrote Greg Baum, in a front-page piece choked with emotion. Details were still hazy, but the final sentence of Baum’s quote was deemed the important part. Responses flowed accordingly – Neil Manthorpe, Vic Marks, Tim Lane all paid their respects.

As early as Monday night though, online reports were emerging, passed on in Tuesday’s papers. That Roebuck had been accused of sexual assault, that the visiting police were of the relevant ilk. That investigations were underway.

The eulogies, of course, have been heartfelt, mostly from colleagues and friends. In general coverage, though, the overwhelming sensation has been uneasiness, a media shifting awkwardly on its chair. As yet, they still don’t have a fix on this story. They want Roebuck to be A Good Man or A Bad Man. The prospect that someone might be both is too much to bear.

The stakes, given the conservative presentation of news, are high. No outlet wants to say nice things about someone who turns out to be Bad, or ill about someone Good. Early reports had more hedges than ever shared an advertising hoarding with Benson.

But ultimately, the lure of the lurid is strong. While Fairfax papers have stood by their man, others here and overseas have been sketching an unpleasant narrative, though one built sufficiently on insinuation and clever positioning that it can be backed away from at short notice.

Essentially, it is the suggestion of Roebuck as a long-term sexual exploiter of boys.

The main thing mentioned in each suggestive news piece, and embraced by vicious blogs as vindication, is the current accusation of assault. Apparently a reminder is due that allegations do not equal guilt, and that sexual impropriety is both the easiest charge to make and the hardest to dispel. Just ask Anwar Ibrahim.

The accusation itself has been given little study. Various reports have it as an ‘attempted sexual assault’, a hazy concept if ever there were one. Attempting a nightclub kiss could be classed as such if the recipient were not amenable.

It is in keeping with the implied narrative that every report refers to the complainant specifically as a “young man”. The man was 26, not the youth implied. To suggest he lacked the capacity to deflect an advance is specious.

Then there’s the possibility of a set-up, which no report I’ve read has yet considered. There are two potential motivations. Sexual accusations are frequently used in blackmail, especially in poorer countries. A high-profile foreigner with a seemingly large supply of philanthropic dollars, Roebuck would have been an obvious target.

Or something bigger? Roebuck was the single most outspoken critic of Zimbabwean politics in the cricketing world. He knew a lot about the country, and castigated ZanuPF politicians and Zimbabwe Cricket Board officials specifically and by name. Much of the diplomatic pressure on Zimbabwe comes from cricketing nations like Australia and Britain, who are more often than others minded of its existence. Roebuck was a wicked acacia thorn in Mugabe’s side.

Trading on one infamous incident in Roebuck’s past, a sexual allegation would be a most effective means of discredit. That a Zimbabwean national should make the accusation within days of Roebuck’s arrival in Africa, after seeking him out online and arranging a hotel meeting, is worthy of note and investigation. Strange that no allegations were ever made in the many years Roebuck spent in Australia.

After the assault allegations, most reports have also touched on Roebuck’s charity house in Pietermaritzburg. Again, the emphasis is on age, citing “young men” and often “boys”. The “boys” in question are mostly in their mid-20s and going through university. The coaching of language gives a different impression.

Look, says the implication. Here is a young African man accusing Roebuck of assault. Here are other young African men under his care and control. Some of the internet’s fouler repositories have taken this to its furthest conclusion, painting Roebuck as a colonialist pervert creating stockpiles of the vulnerable to satisfy his rampant demand for flesh. They have even read sexual malice into some of his sponsored orphans calling him ‘Dad.’

The suggestions are beyond obscene. Roebuck’s students past and present have greeted his death with shock and grief, and described him in glowing terms, as a generous man and a genuine father figure. Not one has suggested any impropriety on his part. Not one has been asked how they feel about his life’s best work being twisted into de facto evidence against him.

All this nudging, rustling, and whispering is essentially based on the one incident. In 1999, we’ve been told countless times in the last few days, Roebuck caned three white South African cricketers. This was well before his charity work started, when he was taking on aspiring players in England for a training regime.

The cricketers are always described as “boys”, despite being 19, and perfectly old enough to have told him to go and jump if they had chosen. The only one contacted by the media this week said he bore Roebuck no ill will, and described him as “a brilliant mind”.

Yes, it’s an odd one, but the level of assumption is unsupportable. Every report has implied a sexual aspect to the caning, when Roebuck belonged to a generation that was routinely caned at school. Much has been made of the judge’s line about it being “done to satisfy some need in you”, without quoting the subsequent sentence in which he refers to establishing a position of power, not to getting one’s rocks off.

This doesn’t mean I’m here to make the case for caning. But presumptions about things that don’t involve you are easy to get wrong. The most prosaic intent can become sinister in the telling. In 2003, I was spotted breaking into a Carlton apartment and leaving with a bag of women’s underwear. As it happened, my girlfriend’s faulty front door latch sometimes needed to be popped with a credit card, and it was my turn to make the run to the laundromat. Cuff me.

Whatever happened in Roebuck’s case, the caning trial was an utter humiliation, and probably the lowest point of his life. He went to ground afterwards, and thought about staying down. Whether he did or didn’t have a case to answer in South Africa, it seems likely that his memory of that first case led to his fatal despair in contemplating fighting another.

It is a sad end. Alive, Roebuck could perhaps have cleared his name. Now, the investigation will likely trail off. Conjecture will continue. The nation’s news services will maintain their vacillation between respecting the revered writer and sniping at the potential villain. We probably won’t get an answer. Roebuck will neither become a comfortably Good Man nor an entirely Bad one. Like the hypocritical mass of the rest of us, he’ll fall somewhere in between.

First published on Crikey.

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26 Responses to The life and death of Peter Roebuck: a good man, a bad man, or something in between

  1. Jim says:

    Well tackled Geof – been looking for the middle path portrayal and you got it, life is so much about shades of grey, but media, Govt policy, and law all only seem capable of dealing with black and white !

  2. Donna says:

    At the end of the day, it is very sad when someone thinks taking their life is the only option they have, regardless of the situation. A very well written piece, as usual.

  3. John Jacobs says:

    Did he take his own life? Generally accepted as a full admission of guilt to whatever anyone can level at you or was he murdered? A matyr to the cause of freedom or some other such worthy cause to die for. Either way, wrong place-wrong time, and more than once by the sound of things. I suspect that I won’t be jumping out of a window anytime soon, though I may be thrown from one for suggesting that his actions doth bringeth the smoke that speaks of the fire.

  4. midlifepilot says:

    Nice work on this one Geoff

  5. zenparadox says:

    The most telling blow landed on his reputation was that which he landed himself, by falling on his sword.

    While I concur wholeheartedly that care must be taken when reading these situations, as soon as you take your own life rather than face the music, you make the prosecution’s case for them. It’s hard to presume innocence when you act guilty as fuck.

    Anwar Ibrahim didn’t take a running leap from the nearest window the moment the charges were laid. (assuming Peter wasn’t thrown a la conspiracy theory ‘A’)

    I am reminded of several instances where after the suicide of the accused, and in light of the media airing of the situation, more victims feel enabled to come forward. (A judge in Adelaide, any number of suiciding abusers around the world once discovered) I wish i could be arsed researching some links to back this up, but its exam week, and i’m procrastinating already just writing this.

    Also, to downplay the coercive power of someone in his position, where his ‘support’ can be the difference between a life of opportunity, verse a life of poverty is to do diservice to your obvious intellect Geoff.

    As a survivor of child abuse myself, I think it better to let an abuser walk free, than to wrongfully accuse/convict an innocent man. There can be no more despicable falsehood I could imagine having to shoulder.

    But its hard to swallow that this is all some conspiracy against him. That’s a bigger leap of faith than that he does indeed have a darker side to his character. I am also completely oblivious to any affection for the man, given I barely knew who he was prior to this story. My abuser was also ‘loved by many’, so for me this sort of sentimental defense is irrelevant to the point of being offensive. Abusers cultivate good standing as a matter of course, to hide thier actions. It doesn’t make Peter guilty, but it also has equally little weight in attesting his innocence.

    ‘Let he who has not sinned cast the first stone..” is a lovely platitude/that old chestnut to bring into this debate. Its telling that the largest stone thrown was by Peter, at himself, before most even knew the stoning was on.

    Love your writing Geoff, and you did navigate closer to a reasoned discourse than so many others at present.

    If he’s innocent, then he’s an absolute fecking goose for ending it without a fight. RIP a good man.

    If he wasn’t, he’s a champion for saving society a bunch of time and money trying, and incarcerating him if successful, and there should be more of it, the offenders offing themselves. RIP, you can harm no more, may you know the error of your ways.

    Tough topic, no easy answers.

    And for the record, could give a shit if he liked blokes (if that was the case, and it seems more likely than not). The only thing that would be a problem is the notion that he used his position of power to co-erce sexual favours from people with few opportunities, a most distatseful practise, despite its commonality in all walks of life.

    • geoff lemon says:

      There’s still the implication in your reply of child abuse, which is not remotely part of this case.

      I’m not arguing that this IS a conspiracy against him. I’m saying that the media line on this goes one way, and one only. The very real possibility of this being invented, for whatever reason, is not being included in the accounting. Both sides have their plausibilities. I am pointing out the side left out.

      As for his death implying guilt, I don’t remotely agree. Roebuck was nearly destroyed by the caning case, on a personal level. It made him the subject of snideness and insult within his professional circles to the point that he ended up moving countries and coming to Australia. That’s hardly something done lightly. Till the day he died, he refused to write for most British papers or be involved with most British media because of the depth of that humiliation, and the perceived attitudes against him. To abruptly find himself accused of something that would validate all that innuendo, and facing the prospect of arrest and court in a foreign country, along with all the media scrutiny that would entail, it’s far from infeasible that in his worst moment it could have seemed too much to go through. It only takes two seconds of impulse. I don’t think anyone has the right to presume what is going through anyone’s head when they take their own life. But it is not an implausible option.

      • zenparadox says:

        OK, definitely not my intention to imply child abuse in this case, Roebucks alleged ‘victims’ are all of an age to give consent legally. If he just met them socially and hit on them there wouldn’t even be a story here, at least not one that i would give a shit about, gay, straight, whatever floats your boat.

        Me talking about what I understand from my experiences is simply due to the fact that people who abuse situations to their own sexual gratification, have behaviourial similarities regardless of whether their chosen targets are of a legal age or not.
        If you set yourself up as a helper of the underprivilged, you sign up to higher set of behavioural expectations form society, and rightly so. Given that it is almost undeniable Peter sought sexual relationshiops with men under his tutelage, he knowingly walked down a path that was awlays going to blow up this way at some point.

        There is clear abuse of power in the first hand accounts of some of those who have had direct experiences relating to the matter. You don’t help young disadvataged people by hitting on them from within the mentor/mentee relationship, and it would be equally distatsteful if it were young women. Do you see this everywhere in soiety including at work, yes. Does that make it OK? No.

        As for being ‘destroyed by the media’ over the caning incident, from what I have read (very limited) he destroyed himself.
        Asking to see the bare asses of young men you have just caned will raise questions, questions that can legitimately be asked of someone who is meant to be a mentor, and in a position of trust. You certainly wouldn’t recommend him to any position where he had access to the vulnerable after reading about that incident.Duty of care anyone? Have we tossed common sense on to the warm fire of sentimental forgiveness for someone we loved for his other talents?

        Am I perfect? Fuck no.

        Does Peter deserve to be condemned as morally bankrupt for what at worst appears to be a) an inability to come out of the closet and be loud and proud, and b) effectively seperate his need for sexual partners from the work he was doing?

        a) No
        b) Hmmmmm, tough call. Not comfortable with the ‘blank cheque’ willingness to forgive of some… If you set yourself up as a doer of good, you have to keep the books pretty clean.

        You ae welcome to a reply on this one Geoff, though I think I will leave it after this. Any point I had is made, and given we will never know the whole truth, the least nod of respect I can give to the man now is to not carry on and on. There will be enough of that.

        I think there was genuine desire to help others in this mans life, but he was certainly tormented by inner demons.

        May we all come to peace with our inner demons, such that we do not ever see our situation so bleak, as to end it suddenly.

  6. chris Parker says:

    Well said mate, when I heard that he had died I immediatly said ” Who did he piss off”

  7. Ricki says:

    It appears to me that Africa is often the wrong place and the wrong time. The moment the accusation appeared a voice deep down said “set up . . . extortion . . . pay back”.

  8. Matthew says:

    I’m glad someone in the media has demonstrated the intelligence and courage to actually A) vocalize in unclouded terms the many issues surrounding this sad event and B) done so without passing judgment or inserting bias on an issue that they are no wiser than the reading public on.

  9. Not buying it says:

    I am with you zenparadox… Its not a conspiracy, just guilt. Roebuck did what Supreme Court Justice David Yeldham did after he was exposed.

    • John Jacobs says:

      To be fair, if that’s the right phrase, David Yeldham was a sexual predator of pre-pubescent boys while Roebuck is reported to have had an encounter with a grown man.

      • Not buying it says:

        The comparison is fair…. Roebuck was accused of grooming the fellow on the internet for some time before attempting to sexually assaulting him.
        And Yeldham was accused of preying on young boys in a toilet block.
        Irrespective of whether the victims were children or adults, male or female. A sexual predator is a sexual predator. Both these men avoided the consequences of their actions by committing suicide before being judged before a court of law = guilty weak cowards.

        • geoff lemon says:

          Glad to see that you know who’s guilty and who isn’t. You should let the courts know, someone of your talents would save us a lot of time and money.

        • John Jacobs says:

          I’m not sure I agree that the term “sexual predator” should apply to the offer of a sexual act between two consenting men. The test here is lawful consent. If it was a sexual assault then so be it, but if it was a sexual encounter that one party found offensive or regretted after the act, then tough shit. People do weird shit behind closed doors. A 26 year old man is not a child.

          What I find hard to accept is that a 26 year old African male would have difficulty fending off the advances of a 50 year old skinny poof, possibly armed with a cane. Things go down differently for white dudes in Zimbabwe. Offering a snappy HJ to a handsome young Zimbabwean man might just get you thrown out of a window by the local police there. The facts, if we ever find them, may exonerate Roebuck. Don’t be too quick to judge, he’s not going anywhere.

          Yeldham was, as you say “accused of preying on young boys in a toilet block” however the Wood Royal Commission found that he was simply a homosexual and his encounters were with consenting adults at a known beat and thus, lawful. I know this to be untrue and maybe you do too. Either way, his (actual) victims were young boys and consent is not an option for them.

  10. Gav says:

    Through the fug of booze in the pub last night, we basically came up with “If there’s allegations from a 26 year old man, what could Roebuck have possibly have done? I find it hard to believe that he would’ve done anything involving physical violence or forcing himself on a 26 year old, that wouldn’t have easily been fought off. If it was an “inappropriate advance”, then aren’t all spurned advances inappropriate in retrospect?”.

    He was known to us all as a great cricket journalist first and foremost, and no matter what, I think that’s how he should be remembered.

    The worry now, is that no matter what the truth, the lads he looked after have a lot more to gain from selling a sordid fabrication, than from being paid nothing for telling a rather boring truth. I hope they have the decency not to be tempted down that path.

  11. Jarrah says:

    I’ll take your 19 year old son and cane him, if it’s fine and dandy with you then Geoff? (Let’s just re-humanise those you dehumanise in your essay shall we…)
    Oh, you don’t have a son, how about your buxom, sweet, waif like 19 year old daughter, or girlfriend, looks like a sweet little sweaty flogging would do us both some good…(Again, we are talking about humans, not figments of imaginations as you seem to portray…)
    From a relative childhood of varying abuses dished out by well-meaning paternal figures I’d say I’m rightly appalled at your eloquence in this man’s defence, but knowing you don’t have children, well, what can i say…(You’re basing your entire essay on ass-u-me’s, so shall i…)
    Maybe you have a 19 year old cousin, brother or nephew i could give a flogging to, and then a 26 year old the same i could attempt to coerce? Or female equivalent? I prefer the slight of build types, they’re easier to overwhelm and subdue…As now I’m a foot taller and 30 kilos heavier than I was at 19…
    Whether he did or did not is beside the point, your defending the aspersion he “might have” abused another human is utterly surreal, and that you do it without knowing the man yourself, or without referencing certain other “articles” that are coming to the fore, and then comparing it all (relatively) to your laundry run like it (this essay you consider journalism) is all just some boyish prank/joke, doesn’t much set you apart from the rest, of the sensationalist media scum, does it now…
    Would you have a differing view of all you espouse, that being of some man you idolise merely because he was Australian or a Cricketeer(?), if the beatings and the advances had of been towards girls/women?
    Your seemingly sexist, racist, slanting makes you a bigot, not an intellectual or a journalist…
    Better luck next time chump…
    (Btw I’m a regular reader and subscriber who has never objected to the usual slant of your rhetoric… Guantanamo are looking for reporters like you, big bucks to be made, am sure your GF and her washing will be more than welcome…Oh, if you’re not still with her I wonder if she took the cane with her when she escaped the relationship…)

    • geoff lemon says:

      Normally I’d take the time to reply to some of these points, but you counted yourself out with that last line. Next time, take ten minutes and a few deep breaths before commenting.

      • Jarrah says:

        Your turgid, very ‘new-age-heterosexual’ admiration of someone well suited to the Melbourne City Riot Police and their recent thuggery, seen as ‘fair’, ‘equitable’ and a ‘justified’ handing out of corporal punishment to unarmed and peaceful charges, leaves me wondering might it be you who is out of breath Geoff. We get a clear perspective of the bullies mind through your essay, the justification of both instances, surreal and bigoted…

        Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Act III, scene II, has you summed up in your dismissal of my last sentence-: “The lady doth protest too much, methinks.”

        Is this ‘girlfriend’ now the mother of your children Geoff? Seriously, because this retort applies either way, chump… When someone small of stature AND demure of character turns 19 OR 26, in your family, you will recall this verbose, but I not yours, for I have conviction…

        Let me attempt to bring it all home for you yet again, Mr Lemon, I presume? (I am concerned it is not you actually writing this one Geoff, either that or you really are hiding something, or outsourcing to the same nation you denigrate in your bigoted rant…)

        Currently caring for my equally poor-working-class elderly widowed mother, a very recently retired RN, and her 95 year old diabetic, invalid partner (till recently a stranger to me), i have mums ear this last month or so, therefore, over a couple of hours of deep thought, including several lengthy edits of my first comment/reply, that you now flick aside in claiming rather *again* ass-u-me[ingly] – due to my ‘lack of breath’; when in fact, our combined 110 years of experience in this life, determined the reply to be a fair and reasonable comment, last sentence especially…

        Your verbose in response is not the same as the initiating of the debate Geoff; i am surprised, but not disappointed. Brave of you to allow my comment/s through unscathed, gutless you prove to be in your reply, just like the dead man you so admire…(Yet I do admire my dead step father who suicided, 20 years after his legs were amputated at the waist in peace time, armed services, so he had good reason, though it broke my heart at 12 years of age; I do digress…)

        My daughter turns 15 on the 21st of December this year, a Wednesday, at 6pm in the evening. Her eyes were blue though turned brown within an hour or two of her birth, darker than her mother’s, and I’d do more than skin you alive if you so much as laid a single slimy finger or cane on her, at any age, for any supposed reason; not being sexist, the same would apply for my son, in theory, theories the only thing you run on…

        (My profession is lumberjack; so you can rightly assume your skin will be removed with an axe, unless you’d rather a chainsaw…and my daughters 5’9” and 70kgs+ at 15, she’s trained in several codes of hand to hand combat, unlikely you’d get within 5 feet of her backside with anything anyway, and she’d smash jaba for good measure, or my axe would find his mushy skull, that tough enough punk…)

  12. jabba says:

    And here, I’d always thought Jarrah was meant to be tougher than Teak…

  13. So many people willing to talk about what a unique but strange and troubled man he was. And yet so little regard given, except by those who knew him best, to the intensity of that moment. Anyone who suggests blithely that his suicide was admission of guilt has not suffered real depression. To rebuild your life after being so vilified, as he himself said for failing himself, and to come out of that rebuild with such an incredible amount to offer. It would have been much easier to take the money he had, of which there was much and spend the rest of his life being the most interesting person at the dinner table. Instead a man who found people so very difficult at times put himself back out there. The courage, or just the burning need to talk about things that mattered.

    I was lucky enough to talk to Peter Roebuck twice, and he did more to help me understand my own turmoil than almost anyone before him. He was a generous, considered and flawed human being. Good or bad is nonsense, and anyone thinking knows it. The world, and certainly the next 25 years of my reading life are poorer for his loss.

    For me the saddest part, and it may seem silly, is that if this could have only happened after this last Test. Because ultimately it was the valour, the honour of this beautiful game that sustained his art. And there was much to take from this last game, the best ending I’ve seen since Whitney denied Hadlee for almost a session to draw sometime in the 80s. It can be the slightest things that pierce the haze.


  14. Sean says:

    Nice touch, Hup Hup. And Jarrah…well, what can anyone say, except perhaps that, despite your many responsibilities (which, taken together, appear to have been concocted by the writing team for a Brazilian soap opera), you have too much time on your hands. Touche, Geoff, for letting it stand.
    As for the article proper, thanks for putting some interesting slants on the whole debacle. I think the “Mugabe’s revenge” angle worthy of consideration, and hadn’t thought of myself, prone as I am to sentimentalising the events, being shocked and saddened by our collective loss of a fine writer and courageous thinker. God knows, cricket needs people like Roebuck now more than ever. As for his guilt or otherwise – any judgement says more about the judge, and the media too, than it ever could about the subject. Hence the passionate responses above, I guess.
    Keep up the good work, Mr Lemon.

  15. Gordon says:

    Well done Zenparadox. You read the situation best from the fragments available at the time.

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