Yesterday I expressed wonderment that Australian editor Chris Mitchell had entered into discussion about the identity of his paper’s sources with Australian Federal Police Commissioner Mick Keelty.

Although Mitchell was ruling out the AFP as the source of the Haneef interview leak — rather than identifying the source — he was dangerously narrowing the field of suspects.

Within hours of Crikey going out, Haneef’s barrister Stephen Keim outed himself as the source, which on one level let Mitchell off the hook. But it doesn’t dispose of the issue.

Today Mitchell responds to my criticisms and those of others by protesting that it was “obvious” the leak hadn’t come from the AFP, and that he had been raided so many times by the Feds that he was happy to rule them out as the source. “They would never leak something like that. I am not going to subject the paper to another search.”

There are two different issues here: the worthiness of the story, and Mitchell’s actions.

The Australian has broken all the stony ground on the Haneef story and I think this was a leak worth having and a story that should have been written. The Oz is rightly proud of it.

The issue of whether or not Mitchell should have said what he said to Keelty will now be washed away in the tide of more urgent matters, such as our fundamental civil liberties and what the Haneef case says about them.

Nevertheless, Mitchell’s conduct raises important ethical questions, and his response does not do away with them.

It was not obvious yesterday morning that the no AFP source was involved in the leak. Keelty obviously needed reassurance for starters. Mitchell protests in this morning’s paper that he didn’t eliminate “a whole lot of people, for instance federal and state politicians, police in Queensland and federal and state attorneys general.”

This is disingenuous. Keelty himself ruled out all these sources, saying that no MPs had access to the transcript of interview. The only possible sources were the AFP, possibly some public servants, or the defence team.

Also in The Australian Media section today, AMC Media head Anthony McClellan writes that Mitchell’s actions were “equivalent to pointing the bone. He should have told Keelty nothing.”

I agree.

Although I have been frequently critical of The Australian, (as well as of almost all other media organisations) I also think Mitchell has been mainly a good editor, and the paper has broken many significant stories over the last few years.

People who accuse The Oz of uncomplicated bias forget that this was the paper that pursued the Australian Wheat Board saga, in which Mitchell stood up to Government bullying and defended his reporters. Further back, The Oz broke the news that the Government was giving out misleading information in the children overboard affair. The Australian’s work on the Haneef story hardly gives comfort to the Government.

The Oz has certainly been in sympathy with the Government’s intellectual agenda, but newsroom culture eschews simplistic analysis. Bias is one of those muddy words that dirties more than it reveals.

Mitchell has sound journalistic values – which makes his conduct with Keelty all the more surprising and sad.

Peter Fray

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