Readers of The Australian can expect more articles attacking its perceived enemies over coming days, as the newspaper pursues media outlets it believes unfairly covered its reporting on the 2009 Operation Neath terror raids.
On Friday, former detective senior constable Simon Artz entered a plea of guilty to the indictable offence of unauthorised disclosure of information and documents to The Oz’s associate editor Cameron Stewart. A tip-off from Artz eventually led to the publication of a front-page story by Stewart detailing anti-terror raids that took place across Melbourne that morning.
Although the raids were successful, then-Victorian police commissioner Simon Overland claimed The Oz had endangered the operation and the lives of police officers because some copies of the paper were available on news stands before the raids took place.
Following a full-page feature by Stewart on the weekend chronicling the saga, The Ozreported on page three today that Media Watch would add a note to its transcript of a 2010 episode examining the issue. State political reporter John Ferguson has now emailed former Crikey media writer Margaret Simons — who has written about the issue extensively — to ask if she plans to apologise to Stewart over her coverage.
Sim0ns has made the email exchange public. Here are Ferguson’s questions …
From: Ferguson, John Sent: Sunday, December 16, 2012 1:00 PM To: Margaret Simons Subject: neath
I am doing a follow-up on the Operation Neath/Simon Artz case and would appreciate you responding to the following questions:
1) Given the outcome of the Simon Artz court case, do you believe that your criticism of Cameron Stewart’s handling of his source was warranted?
2) In light of the evidence before the court, Do you believe that you owe Cameron Stewart an apology for your reporting of his circumstances?
3) Why did you uncritically report the OPI’s spin without getting comment from Paul Whittaker or Chris Mitchell?
4) Would you concede that you over-egged your criticism of Stewart?
5) Do you believe tweeting from a court room is the sort of behaviour expected from a senior journalism academic?
6) If you had your time over again, would you report this case differently?
7) Do you still believe that Whittaker bargained with people’s lives over the AFP raid?
And Simons’ response …
From: Margaret Simons Sent: Monday, 17 December 2012 11:17 AM To: Ferguson, John Subject: RE: neath
There is a factual inaccuracy in your questions that I would want to correct, since people tell me it is being commonly claimed in The Australian newsroom. It is not true to say that I did not get comment from Whittaker and Mitchell.
Over the long period that I covered this affair, I frequently tried to contact both men. They did not always get back to me, but I had a number of conversations with Whittaker, and one with Mitchell, which were at the time not for publication. However, I certainly took what they said into account in deciding my attitude to the affair. As what I wrote shows, they failed to convince me on key points.
I also made a number of unsuccessful attempts to talk to Cameron Stewart, and (although not directly relevant to Stewart) discussed the Overland affair and the OPI at length with Hedley, in texts, emails and by phone.
Interestingly, neither Mitchell nor Whittaker told me about the release signed by Artz. I found that out from other sources. When I first started writing about The Australian’s attempt to suppress the OPI/ACLEI report, what I had was documents lodged in the Federal Court which, among other things, showed that The Australian’s lawyers were nominating a fear that Stewart’s reputation would suffer as part of their grounds for opposing its release.
I have heard that it is being claimed around The Australian that I got this and other information about Stewart’s handling of his source via leaks from the OPI. That is completely incorrect. It was from the court file, and things said in open court. At no stage have the OPI told me anything that is not on the public record. The only information I have gained in this case that is not from the public record has been from confidential sources within The Australian.
As for your other questions, obviously I would have reported the existence of the release, had I known about it. When I did find out about it, I reported it.
The core issue in this case is that there was no public interest in the Operation Neath scoop, and considerable harm and potential harm in how The Australian handled it. The net result of the AFP briefings to Stewart, following Whittaker playing hardball with the AFP, was that we found out about the Operation and the raids a few hours before we would otherwise have done so.
Yet the consequences of getting that scoop included:
putting a source in harm’s way,
the stuff up over the publication time had the potential to put people at risk,
the fact of the briefings gave rise to concerns that the AFP might have dealt corruptly with information. As a result there was an ACLEI inquiry, which ultimately dismissed the concerns.
I remain critical of The Australian’s conduct.
Most of my reporting and commentary concerned the court action by The Australian to suppress the OPI-ACLEI report and its criticisms of the paper’s conduct. I was also very critical of the simultaneous and subsequent campaign against the OPI and Overland, which followed Chris Mitchell’s threat to the OPI as part of the attempt to suppress the OPI/ACLEI report.
In attempting to justify its actions, and to cover up criticism of its conduct, it is The Australian that has “over-egged” in defense and attack.