In a move that defies credibility, Western Australian Treasurer Eric Ripper denied government involvement in the police raid on a Perth newspaper last week. Yesterday Ripper said he told WA parliament he made one phone call to report a concern that Cabinet confidentiality may have been breached. He then claimed he had no further involvement until told the raid had taken place. Ripper was at the centre of an article in the Sunday Times which suggested he was using taxpayer funds for party advertising.
Ripper’s claim does not explain why a massive force of sixteen police officers raided the newsroom of the Murdoch-owned weekly Wednesday. Major Fraud Squad (MFS) officers were there on behalf of the fraud squad which was trying to find who leaked information about a government decision to spend $16 million. Police say that five officers initially went to the Sunday Times but more were sent when the paper’s management initially refused to co-operate.
Police removed documents, blocked exits at the newspaper's building and searched staff. The search lasted four hours and the paper’s editor Sam Weir was interviewed for over an hour. Story writer Paul Lampathakis was not in the Sunday Times building at the time of the police raid but police removed several items and notes from his desk. Detective Senior Sergeant Dom Blackshaw said documents had been seized during the search as part of an investigation into "potential breaches of the secrecy provisions of the criminal code".
In February the Sunday Times published an article by Lampathakis which said WA’s Treasurer, Eric Ripper in his role as head of the cabinet communication sub-committee, "urgently" asked the expenditure review committee for $5.25 million for the first half of the year and a further $10.75 million to July next year. Lampathakis’s story quoted “government sources” who said the money was to be spent on a strategic advertising campaign to help Labour's bid for re-election later this year.
The government was more offended by the unauthorised disclosure than the misuse of public funds and immediately launched a witch-hunt to identify the culprit. They referred the matter to the Corruption and Crime Commission (CCC). The government dusted down Section 28 of the 2003 CCC Act which read that "certain officers" are obliged to report misconduct. The CCC claims it did not act on the referral because it already has more complaints than it can handle. They in turn referred the matter to the police where it ended up in the hands of the Major Fraud Squad.
While it is possible that the MFS conducted the raid without informing the government, it seems unlikely police senior management would have approved so public a move without some political consultation. Ripper’s claim of non-involvement in Wednesday’s events also flies in the face of a statement released by his boss. The day after the raid, the office of the Western Australian Premier Alan Carpenter (himself a former journalist) admitted it had made the complaint that led to the raid. A department spokesman said they referred allegations of the unauthorised disclosure of a confidential document to the WA police and the CCC.
The Sunday Times editor, Sam Weir was outraged by the raid on his newspaper. He said it was the second time in a month the paper had been raided by police over a Lampathakis story. The earlier Lampathakis story concerned the dumping of computers from Royal Perth Hospital that still contained private medical details of patients. Journalist union MEAA local secretary Michael Sinclair-Jones said the latest search was outrageous. "It's an attack on free speech," he said, "an outrageous attempt to stifle free speech and impede the press.”
Media coalition Australia's Right to Know chief and News Ltd CEO John Hartigan said the raid was a farcical and transparent attempt to punish journalists and whistleblowers. Cowan University journalism lecturer Kayt Davies told Crikey the police have learned an embarrassing lesson from the raid. He said he hopes the MFS now knows “that the media yowls like a pack of angry watchdogs if you squeeze it and so it’s best to use whatever discretion you have up your sleeve and to leave it alone.”
The raid was captured by the Sunday Times website Perth Now's own cameras and posted on Youtube. There is an excellent spot of editing in the piece when a scene showing a policeman claiming the search will not be “intrusive” is immediately followed by a shot of another putting on what looks like surgical gloves!