Wednesday, May 07, 2008

WA police raid on Sunday Times leaves politicians ducking for cover

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!


Ann O'Dyne said...

"Ripper denial"

bwah ha ha.

in the immortal 1963 words of Miss Mandy Rice-Davies

"well he would say that, wouldn't he?"

Kevin Rennie said...

When we moved to WA in January last year I was staggered to learn of both the powers of the CCC and their exercise of those powers: phone taps, bugging, recording of private conversations and surveillance involving people not directly accused of anything. A sort of Star fishing Chamber.

Despite or perhaps because of my long time involvement with the ALP, I would not be surprised if the assertions of dirt on the government's hands were true. However, at this stage it is pure speculation. I suggest that someone ask the CCC to investigate whether the Ministers have abused their powers.
As a Broome ALP sub-branch member I enjoyed Shelley Archer MLC's hospitality at party functions in her home before her forced resignation and regularly visited her electorate office. I have often joked that my political jokes and anecdotes were being recorded and would be taken out of context, or worse in context.

The public seem happy to watch the squirming of politicians and the legion of urgers and suits who inhabit the decision-making lobbies. It is a costly exercise in both financial and civil liberties terms. Lots of unethical behaviour, some bordering on the illegal, has been exposed. I'm not aware of any successful criminal charges.

The media have thrived on the revelations emanating from the CCC's activities but aren't prepared to cop the collateral damage that comes with this heavy handed approach to keeping the bastards honest.

Sauce for the goose?

Derek Barry said...

Thanks for your comments, Kevin.

my beef is not with the CCC but with the heavy-handed campaign to shut down a whistle-blower.

This case was only dubiously within the remit of the CCC in the first place. What was the criminal activity they were being asked to investigate? That some official blabbed on Ripper's plans to spend government money on party activity?

It took some very creative reading of the CCC Act to conjure up a summons.

The very fact they were able to do so, means that I would agree with you that the CCC's powers seem grossly excessive.

I'm not sufficiently across their results to comment on whether their methods have produced results but if this is typical of the type of minor case referred to them, I can see how they would be overloaded!


Kevin Rennie said...

It may seem a bit legalistic but if members of parliament and senior public servants can be bugged to see if they are revealing confidential information to lobbyists, then those who pass similar information to journalists should also be fair game. Members of the media can have other agendas including private greed or looking after mates, besides upholding the public good.
Difficult ethical questions. Not an familiar area for WAN.