There is always an undertow to public life. As the shock-waves of the Haneef story subside to daily rumble and The Australian’s Hedley Thomas no doubt gathers his clippings for what will be a hard-to-beat Walkley Award entry, it is worth reviewing what the media coverage of the affair tells us about Australia’s networks of media power.

This story turned, and turned hard, just nineteen days ago when Thomas published this report that the AFP had bugger all evidence against Haneef. How did he know? Thomas had seen “top-level documentation” and quoted “current documents circulated by senior public servants in the Howard Government”.

I believe that these documents included the police affidavit in the case. Sources within The Australian say that this was the most ticklish story of all to publish, involving legal advice that initially counselled against, with concerns about whether terrorism legislation made it illegal to publish – or even see and discuss – the documents.

Editor in Chief Chris Mitchell pushed on regardless – and this is a lesson for those who like to christen The Oz The Government Gazette, existing only to give comfort to Howard. Newspaper bias is never simple – as much to do with personalities as politics. More on this later.

You would think that with Thomas’s story on the front page, the Government, AFP and DPP would pause in their pursuit – but no. Haneef was charged within 24 hours. Why did the powers-that-be feel safe in doing so?

I understand that it is partly because of the way media works in this country. No newspaper can allow, or even easily admit, that a rival has a scoop. Particularly in Canberra, often journalists unconsciously conspire to try and kill or denigrate a rival’s good story.

In the corridors of power other media were focused not on the substance of Thomas’s story, but on whether or not the Government was worried about the leak – even seeming to press for disclosure of the source. The powers-that-be took comfort.

Not pretty.

Even the Oz itself didn’t seem to be entirely on board – until Thomas got the story of 18 July – a complete leak of the transcript of police interview with Haneef. That caused the brown stuff to hit the fan in Canberra – and behind the scenes the networks spasmed.

Chris Mitchell was woken from slumber at about 6.30am on the day of publication by a call from AFP Commissioner Mick Keelty. I have written before on what happened, and what I think about it.

Keelty effectively used Mitchell, and persuading him to narrow the field of potential sources for the leak. Mitchell was let off the hook by the defence team later admitting they were the leakers – but that doesn’t dispose of what that phone call tells us about how power works.

We can only understand what Mitchell did in the context of two things – Keelty’s slick political and media management, and the existence of a pre-existing relationship. A close examination of the past few years’ stories suggests that the AFP has been good source for the Oz. At 6.30am in the morning, protecting the relationship must have seemed like a good idea.

When the history of the last eleven years is written, the Oz will, I think, have been found to have given both most comfort and most discomfort to the Howard Government. All the stories that have most embarrassed the Government were broken by the Oz – AWB, Haneef, children overboard and others.

On the other hand there was this embarrassingly shallow and biased summation of the Howard years, and this embarrassing Prime Ministerial imprimatur, which should have shamed everyone at the paper.

So what is going on? Well, Mitchell is not a simple man, and newsrooms are not simple places. Mitchell is seriously bright, loves a good story, has assembled a good team and has the sort of courage good journalists need in their editor – and yet he also at times does bizarre things like pursue dead historians on the basis of dodgy evidence, attack left wing critics in over-the-top vituperative terms and generally react with a jaw of fine crystal to critics he could well afford to ignore.

And yet, he has backed this story. It is a fair bet that his previously close relationship with Keelty is now at the very least under some strain. In the end, in this case as with the Wheat Board, the story wins.

As for Keelty, the way he handles media is on display. Witness that early morning call to Mitchell, and how Keelty used the death of the investigator on the Haneef case. Think, too, to the Good Weekend piece of 30 June (unfortunately not online) about the suicide of ACT top cop Audrey Fagan, at a time when rumours around Canberra were painting Keelty in a less flattering light.

Meanwhile the paper Mitchell edits displays a split personality – or pluralism – on Haneef. Take page six yesterday. Hedley Thomas and Cameron Stewart gave Andrews a shellacking.

Meanwhile The Oz editorialised that Andrews was “a political buffoon”. Yet the Doctor Pangloss of the Haneef case, Denis Shanahan, suggested that Andrews’ only fault was an insufficient display of grace under pressure, something on which Shanahan might well regard himself as an expert.

Previously, on July 20 Shanahan had opined that the whole messy affair was evidence that:

Australian democracy and all its vital parts are operating perfectly at a time of national threat.

…in the best of all possible worlds.

I think Haneef tells a much more complicated story. And it isn’t over yet.