The Australian’s Cameron Stewart is a very fine journalist — he is also one of the favourite sources of the Australian Federal Police when it comes to them leaking information out about investigations so as to ensure the public atmosphere is suitably “informed”.

Stewart is clearly the cipher for the AFP’s spin this morning in his two stories on the arrest of 4 men allegedly involved in terrorist activity in Melbourne this morning . The AFP, ASIO and the Commonwealth DPP will love Stewart’s opening paragraph:

A plot by Islamic extremists in Melbourne to launch a suicide attack on an Australian Army base has been uncovered by national security agencies.

Not an alleged plot mind you, but a confirmed plot. In other words, case proved already without having to waste a second in a court room.

Stewart has been given a decent briefing by the authorities with all their juicy and sexy bits of “evidence” given a prominent run in the story. And again, the way the story is written you would assume that these men were guilty.

If I were acting for one of the persons in this case, I would be hotfooting it off to court to seek an order banning publication of names and further details of the case, and I would be citing Cameron Stewart’s articles as Exhibit 1.

That the AFP has used Stewart as a friendly media source to spin their view of the accused in a terrorism trial is not without precedent.

In late 2005 when a group of young men and a sheikh, Abdul Nasser Benbrika were arrested in the early hours of the morning in Melbourne, the AFP’s case was relayed by Stewart.

In a piece written with Natalie O’Brien on 9 November of that year, a few days after the accused were arrested, Stewart put the AFP case by using phrases such as:

…as the evidence mounted, brick by brick, it became clear that this group might pose a deadly threat to national security.” And, Stewart and O’Brien could not have got from any other source than the AFP this line; The final straw came last Tuesday when police concluded that the group’s members were showing classic behavioural changes including more telephone conversations, more face to face meetings.

Not that Stewart and O’Brien were alone in publishing damaging material from police that had not been tested by the courts. The Daily Telegraph ran a story that said authorities had evidence that the accused in Melbourne had stockpiled weapons – there was no such evidence, ever. And it published a list of so called terrorist targets that included the Melbourne Stock Exchange and Flinders Street Station — once again there was nothing to support those police assertions.

In today’s piece Stewart appears to be quoting from something that sounds awfully like a prosecutors summary to be read in court:

Authorities believe the group is at an advanced stage of preparing to storm an Australian Army base, using automatic weapons, as punishment for Australia’s military involvement in Muslim countries. It is understood the men plan to kill as many soldiers as possible before they are themselves killed.

And Stewart goes on.

“The cell has been inspired by the Somalia-based terrorist movement al-Shabaab, with two Melbourne men, both Somalis, having travelled to Somalia in recent months to obtain training with the extremist organisation, which is aligned with al-Qa’ida,” he writes.

Once again, this is written as though it is unassailable fact.

Stewart also has a comment piece to accompany his AFP exclusive. And in that piece he appears to have no doubt about the guilt of these men:

The global reach of Islamic terrorism has been grimly underlined by news that an extremist movement from a failed African nation has served as the inspiration for a group of men in the suburbs of Melbourne to hatch a plan to kill innocent Australians. The extraordinary plot, revealed exclusively by The Australian today, shows how easily the toxic philosophies of militant Islam can infect the minds of those who are susceptible to its call, wherever in the world they may be. In this case, it was a nondescript group of Melbourne labourers and taxi drivers, of Somali and Lebanese descent, who were seduced by the lure of the violent Somali extremist group al-Shabaab.

No qualifiers here. No sense that the evidence is yet to be tested in any court and that the whole thing might turn out to be nonsense.

Greg Barns appeared for one of the accused in the Melbourne terrorism trial last year.

Peter Fray

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