The Federal Court will reveal tomorrow whether it will allow Victorian Police name the source of the leak to The Australian’s journalist Cameron Stewart over last year’s Melbourne terrorist arrest operation. On 4 August 2009 the Australian printed Cameron Stewart’s exclusive. The article quoted Australian Federal Police commissioner Tony Negus saying the AFP had disrupted a “terrorist attack that could have claimed many lives”. Four men were arrested in Melbourne in Operation Neath after 400 police raided homes in the city’s northern suburbs. The four were said to have been inspired by Somalia’s Islamist Al Shabaab and about to attack a military base using semi-automatic weapons.
A great story, and Stewart had gotten the inside scoop. The Australian had learned of the operation a full week before it occurred and agreed to hold off on publication until the morning of the raid. But Victoria Police were incensed to find out the details of the operation hit the streets for the first run of the paper in the early hours of this morning and criticised it for potentially jeopardising a series of early morning raids, calling it an “unacceptable risk”. The Australian rejected the claim, saying the story was held up from early editions while the raids took place. According to the paper’s then editor-in-chief Chris Mitchell, "only papers that were sold at newsagents after the raid, and those destined for home delivery, had the raid story on page one."
The online outlet Crikey later found out the edition with the story in it was available in some retail outlets at 1.30am, some three hours before the raid started. While few if any papers were purchased, thefts of papers outside agents are not uncommon and those that do buy papers at that time of the morning include taxi drivers, which happened to be the occupation of some of the suspects. So it is fair to say, the integrity of the operation could well have been jeopardized by The Australian’s actions. But it is also arguable the operation should have been brought forward as soon as the AFP realised its secrecy was compromised.
On 9 August the police corruption watchdog got involved. In a media release Australian Commission for Law Enforcement Integrity commissioner Philip Moss announced they would investigate an alleged security breach relating to Operation Neath. The announcement said the ACLEI investigation was part of a coordinated response by State and Federal law enforcement and integrity agencies, including the Office of Police Integrity (Victoria). “ACLEI’s focus will relate to the involvement, if any, of members of the Australian Federal Police in the alleged security breach,” the release said.
In March, Stewart won the Gold Quill for outstanding journalism at the Melbourne Press Club's annual Quill Awards dinner. In his acceptance speech for the award Stewart said he couldn’t speak about the incident due to reasons of legal confidentially. He painted the case as one of press freedom and said the lack of shield laws for sources and journalists was a disgrace. “What none of you know here is that it's been a very, very difficult and ugly legal battle behind the scenes,” he said. "But let me tell you that it is a real fight in this country for press freedom because it is a very ugly battle that we face and I hope that every single person in this room does what they can to stand up for it.”
As a result of the ACLEI / OPI investigation, a Victorian policeman was identified as Stewart’s source and suspended for leaking the information. When ACLEI and OPI drafted a report into the source of the leak, The Australian won an injunction prohibiting its publication. The case currently before the courts attempts to overturn that injunction. However the two police forces involved have broken ranks. Margaret Simons in Crikey said last week court documents show ACLEI has cut a deal with The Australian and has agreed not to publish any of the information they have obtained about the newspaper during their investigation and will also allow The Australian to review any report it writes that refers to the paper or its employees.
The Victorian agency is understandably unhappy with its federal counterpart and going ahead with the request to overturn the injunction. Simons has been covering the case from the courtroom for the last few days using the Twitter hashtag #ozleak No-one is prepared to make a call on what way the court will judge. But the case does put into question dodgy practices in the media and police. Both Simons and Media Watch host Jonathan Holmes have publicly questioned whether Stewart deserved a high journalism accolade for his work on a story that could so easily have gone drastically wrong. Was it great work in the interest of the public’s right to know or merely “a policeman blabbing to a journo about a legitimate terrorist investigation” as Holmes put it? Either way, Stewart may find nasty repercussions if he is ever forced to confirm the source in a criminal investigation.