This week Victoria Police and the Australian Federal Police (AFP) conducted raids on a number of Victorian properties as part of an investigation into an alleged plot to attack a military base in outer Sydney. An associate editor at The Australian, Cameron Stewart (pictured right), knew of the planned raids in advance. According to a report by Paul Maley in The Weekend Australian, on July 30th Stewart contacted the AFP and alerted them that he was aware of the planned raids and intended to publish on the information he had. In the ensuing negotiations with the AFP Stewart agreed not to publish if the story jeopardised the police operation. But Stewart also made it clear to AFP acting commissioner Tony Negus that the final decision on whether The Australian published the story or not was not his to make. This led to what can only be described as an incredible series of events.
Stewart informed Negus that the final editorial decision would fall on The Australian’s Sydney editor Paul Whittaker (pictured right), who in turn told Negus that he’d have to check with editor-in-chief Chris Mitchell. The hubris of The Australian’s editors is amazing. Essentially, the AFP was held over a barrel by the national daily. Whether or not a large police operation would be effective was in the hands of three editorial staff who would have to check with each other that it was okay not to go to press. Eventually Whittaker struck a deal with the AFP to hold Stewart’s story until after the raids. Nevertheless, how is it that senior editors at The Australian can even consider placing a police operation in jeopardy? Given that significant coverage of the planned raids would tip off the targets, it seems that in this case the success or failure of the operation largely came down to an editorial decision at The Australian.
But this is not the worst of it.
Victorian Police Chief Commissioner Simon Overland is claiming that The Australian did in fact break its deal to hold the story. Paul Maley reports Overland as stating that a law enforcement officer bought an edition of the paper containing coverage of the raids at 1.30am, two and a half hours before the operation was carried out. Overland also claims that a newsagent reported receiving the paper at 1.30am. But in an instance that is so ironic that one could well expect to see it on an episode of The Chaser, an edition of the paper was delivered to the AFP headquarters at 2am.
Despite Overland’s claims, The Australian denies reneging on the deal it made with the AFP. In what sounds suspiciously like it contains a piece of linguistic trickery, editor-in-chief Chris Mitchell (pictured right) argues that ‘the deal struck with the AFP was simple. The Australian would hold off publishing Stewart’s story’ (Maley 2009). Accordingly, Mitchell claims that there was no breach of the deal.
It is hard to find a justification for The Australian’s actions. Police raids depend entirely on the element of surprise, and it is hard to surprise suspects when they are forewarned by the national daily. Fortunately in this case the operation appears not to have been compromised. But this example of journalistic hubris should give people cause to question why these types of cases can arise in the first place. It is obvious that the AFP had an internal leak, and the Australian Commission for Law Enforcement Integrity is duly investigating. But despite the leak, editors at The Australian had no grounds for agreeing to hold the story only if they so agreed.
This is not a case like that of Mohamed Haneef where police were involved in investigative misconduct. It is only after arrests are made that one can determine the legitimacy of an arrest, and no arrest can be made – legitimate or otherwise – unless there is a reasonable expectation that the suspect can be apprehended. The Australian’s conduct this week may have jeopardised that expectation. In one of those beautiful episodes where one can call forth the law of excluded middle, either Overland is wrong or The Australian is lying.
Maley, P (2009), ‘Terror sting unfolds’, Inquirer, The Weekend Australian, 8-9 August.