The Australian draped two absolutely cracking stories above the fold on its front page today: “EXCLUSIVE: Army base terror plot foiled” and “Grech: Why I faxed email EXCLUSIVE“.

Two big stories that again affirmed, in their own intriguing ways, that The Australian is both what it thinks it is — the newspaper that sets the country’s agenda — and what it really is — the newspaper that pushes the boundaries so hard that they sometimes crack under the weight of its own corporate culture.

Both stories were scoops. Both stories were important. Surely those two facts alone should have been enough to validate The Australian’s belief in its innate role, as it proclaims every day under its masthead, as “The Heart of The Nation”?

Maybe, but as with so much about The Australian there is an unpublished dimension to both stories which, without discrediting their content, raises so many annoyingly ethical questions about whether either story should have been published at all.

1) The annoying terror plot ethical question: Within hours of the terror plot story being published this morning, Victorian Police Commissioner Simon Overland publicly accused The Australian of creating “an unacceptable risk to the operation and an unacceptable risk to my staff” by publishing its story, in Overland’s words, “well before the raids were carried out”.

2) The annoying Godwin Grech ethical question: is revealed in the second paragraph of the story which informed readers that Grech was “speaking from a psychiatric ward in Canberra last night”. That’s right, The Australian interviewed Grech in a psychiatric ward, the details of which were explained this way in a sidebar piece:

Godwin Grech’s health remains fragile and he has been hospitalised with depression for more than a month in the wake of the OzCar affair. Mr Grech has been a patient in the psychiatric ward of a Canberra hospital since late June. Mr Grech told The Australian a crisis assessment team presented at his home on June 22, the day the Australian Federal Police raided his house, urging him to check himself in. He agreed and said he had since been diagnosed with chronic depression. Staff at the hospital have confirmed the diagnosis and that Mr Grech’s admission was voluntary.

To people who write about it, the most irritating aspect of ethics in journalism is when it moves from being the subject of a thumping editorial to becoming a subject that affects annoyingly real people like terrorism police and psychiatric patients.

Peter Fray

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