Wednesday’s surreal scenes of 16 burley police officers gravely raiding a metropolitan newsroom seemed like a lurch towards a dystopian future in which journalists operate in secret, disguising their identities for fear of reprisal from brutish and corrupt officials.

On 10 February The Sunday Times ran a story by senior journalist Paul Lampathakis revealing plans to spend $16 million on pre-election government advertising. As the cabinet documents mentioned in the article had not been officially released, they appear to have been leaked.

On 30 April Lampathakis worked most of the day out of the office. When he arrived mid-afternoon there were police officers searching his desk and other employees’ belongings, while blocking all exits and questioning his boss.

Was it intimidating? “It’s never pleasant to be targeted in this way, but The Sunday Times and News Ltd have been great in backing me.”

Asked if the ordeal would change what he does with information from sources, he said: “I guess all WA journalists who write sensitive political stories have to be mindful that this sort of repressive behaviour can occur.”

While others used terms like “Zimbabwean” and “Mugabe-esque”, Lampathakis was more measured and just said it’s “pretty crazy overkill and it raises questions about the sort of democracy we have in WA.”

The question the raid itself poses is clearly journalistic in a Fourth Estate sense: has the constitutional requirement of separation of the powers been breached?

Did Attorney General Jim McGinty or Premier Alan Carpenter or anyone else in the state ALP lean on, encourage or otherwise impel the WA police force, specifically the Major Fraud Squad to act in a way they wouldn’t have done without some kind of prompting?

More interesting than McGinty’s flat denial, is the game of hot potato that was being played yesterday between the WA Corruption and Crime Commission (CCC), the Department of Premier and Cabinet (DPC) and the WA Police.

Mid-morning Michael Sinclair Jones from the WA branch of the MEAA said he’d already had a call from the CCC saying the commission was not involved. A follow up call to the CCC yielded an echo of Sinclair Jones’ claim.

A spokesman said: “Back in February we were notified about it by the Department of Premier and Cabinet, and at the same time they notified the police. We then notified the police that we would not be pursuing it, as they already had an investigation underway, and we’ve had nothing else to do with it.”

He explained his call to Sinclair Jones saying he wanted to make it clear that the considerable powers that the CCC has at its disposal were not being brought into play.

OK. But how was it that the police had an investigation already underway if they were notified at the same time.

Mid-afternoon John Arthur, Chief of Staff of the Government Media Office said he’d been fielding questions like that all day. He said the DPC’s notification to the CCC and the Police went out on February 12; it was received by the CCC on February 15, on February 22 the Police notified the CCC that it was pursuing the matter and on February 27 the CCC had notified the police that it wasn’t taking it any further. A police statement echoed this and added that while an initial assessment was made before February 27, its “active investigation” didn’t start until after that date.

So why were questions being asked about the CCC’s involvement? Because the Office of the Director General of the DPC sent out a media release on Wednesday (the day of the raid) saying: “A spokesman for the DPC today confirmed that the department referred allegations of the unauthorized disclosure of a confidential document to the Western Australian Police and the CCC … in accordance with usual departmental practice and to fulfill legal obligations under section 28 of the Corruption and Crime Commission Act 2003.”

Oops. No wonder the press got antsy. Especially considering that offences under the CCC Act 2003 carry potential three year imprisonments and $60,000 fines.

A follow up statement on Thursday “clarified” the DPC’s role. This time the faceless spokesman said: “that where the department becomes aware of potential misconduct on the part of a public officer, section 28 of the Corruption and Crime Commission Act 2003 obligates the Director General to report the matter to the CCC. Where the allegations involve potential criminal acts, the department refers the matter to the WA Police. In this instance, the matter was referred as the allegations involved a potential offence under section 81 of the Criminal Code.”

It then washed its hands, asserting that since then it has “had no role in the nature or conduct of the investigation”. Police commissioner Karl O’Callaghan mirrored this in a statement of his own saying that he “categorically denied suggestions the state government was involved in any way with the investigation or yesterday’s raid”.

OK, so (if we believe what we’re told) we can picture the boys in the DPC scouring the papers for leaked information and firing off “complaints” every time something that hasn’t been officially released turns up. While the CCC appears to be cognizant of the need to wield its clout responsibly, the WA Police appear to be bafflingly gung-ho.

Perhaps catching people who leak embarrassing cabinet documents is really important – more important than investigating handbag theft and home invasions and stalkers, and all the other things there aren’t enough police on the ground to investigate.

But, if that’s the case, then questions need to be asked:

If the police really wanted to find out what was in Paul Lampathakis’s notebook wouldn’t it have been smart to phone the newsroom first to check if he was at his desk before heading in? It could, after all, have been in his briefcase.

And why were 16 officers required? Were the journos likely to roll up their sleeves and get into some biffo? Was there actually a danger that someone might make a grab for Lampathakis’s notebook and run for the door?

This leaves it looking like an exercise in deterrence. It was showtime and the officers played nicely to the cameras. (Of course there were cameras, it was a newsroom and no one asked the photojournalists to stop shooting.)

But who were they trying to deter? From a law enforcement perspective it would have to be the suppliers of leaked information.

The deterrence message in that case would be something like: “Don’t think that your info is safe in the notebooks of journalists because our might is stronger than their code of ethics.”

Sinclair Jones summed it up saying: “This sends a powerful message to the community that no secret is safe in a newsroom.”

Lampathakis sounds far from beaten though. Asked if this will change the way he works, he said: “Nothing will really change. … [but] perhaps I’ll be mindful that someone could be listening to my phone conversations.”

(Cue the intro to the news bulletins from the broken near-future world of TV’s Dark Angel: “Do not attempt to adjust your sets this is a Streaming Freedom Video bulletin, the cable hack will last exactly 60 seconds. It cannot be traced, it cannot be stopped and it is the only free voice left in the city.”)

What can be done? 

Two critical issues that it’s important to keep in sight, despite the wild west spectacle of Wednesday’s Sunday Times raid are Shield Laws and the State Government’s advertising spend.

Shield Laws because they protect a journalist’s right to protect sources. The most disturbing point about Wednesday’s raid was that Lampathakis’s right to choose whether to protect his source or not was denied to him, and like all acts that involve forceful imposition of will, there’s something dirty about it.

Lampathakis’ 10 February story claimed that “Taxpayers are being asked to fork out a whopping $16 million for advertising to help get the Carpenter Government re-elected.” In it he quoted Opposition leader Troy Buswell as saying that the Carpenter Government wanted to waste an “obscene amount’” on trying to buy an election win.

Asked yesterday if he had done anything in the last three months to address the problem of the government’s “obscene” plans, such as drafting legislation, Buswell responded: “Our legislation in relation to advertising spend is being developed and will be introduced so people can have confidence that money being spent on advertising by their government is for legitimate purposes and not part of election campaigns”.

That will be one to watch for.

Meanwhile either slow or no progress is being made on the development of Shield Laws to protect WA journalists from the risk of imprisonment for contempt of court if they refuse to reveal their sources. WA MEAA’s Michael Sinclair Jones said he met with Attorney General Jim McGinty in December 2007 and that he had lodged a written submission on the matter a few months ago, but that nothing had happened since.

Taking an appealingly oppositional stance, Buswell said: “The introduction of Shield Laws for journalists is imperative and it is disgraceful that Jim McGinty has been using stalling tactics for their introduction as a threat over journalists.”

Greens MLC Giz Watson, however noted that the Greens had, on many occasions, been the only voices in the chamber arguing for the preservation of press freedom. She said that while the Greens had yet to put up a shield law bill of their own, she’d “be keen to have a look at” one drafted by a Liberal member.

We’d be pretty keen too.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey