Crikey understands that the reason for the withdrawal of Martin Chulov’s book Australian Jihad: The battle against terrorism from within and without is nothing as conspiratorial as sedition – instead, it comes down to good old-fashioned contempt of court.

It’s a basic tenet of publishing to be circumspect about anyone who is yet to be dealt with by the court system, especially in matters involving a pending jury trial. So how did Pan Macmillan let this one slip through the net?

Well-placed sources have told Crikey that a call was made to publishers Pan Macmillan by the barrister for a defendant in a case yet to reach court, seeking an injunction against the book. The lawyer apparently claimed that material in the book, all of which is already on public record, could be prejudicial to his client.

Contempt of court was always a potential obstacle to the book’s publication, as Chulov deals with many cases that are still in court or set to go to court. However, Crikey understands that both Chulov and his publishers Pan Macmillan were extremely careful about combing over every detail with a fine toothed comb – they went out of their way to place pressure on their lawyers to ensure that they were safeguarded from a contempt risk.

Chulov was almost too careful — sources tell Crikey that the author and Middle East correspondent for The Australian was willing to put the book on hold for another year if need be to avoid the possibility of a recall.

The book relied heavily on the use of pseudonyms, but in light of the recall it seems that this strategy was not enough to protect the book from the risk of contempt of court. There was nothing else published on any subjects that could prove contentious in addition to what was already on the public record, but even this measure wasn’t enough to avoid the book being pulled from the shelves a mere two weeks after its release.

Crikey understands that the case in question is due in court later this year, but could be postponed until early 2007, throwing the timing of the book’s reissue into the realm of the indefinite.

As for the reasons behind Pan Macmillan’s very sketchy explanation for the recall, Crikey understands that the publishing house can’t be seen to identify one of the defendants in any way.

So does this mean the courts could be dictating the debate around the war on terror for years to come? How do we balance protecting the rights of defendants with the need for informed debate about terrorism?