The Australian newspaper’s edition detailing Tuesday morning’s terror raids was available in Melbourne from 1.30am yesterday, putting the lie to claims that the paper could not have compromised a police operation to arrest a suspected terrorist cell operating in the Melbourne suburbs.

The Victoria Police Commissioner, Simon Overland, claimed both his men and the operation to arrest the suspected terrorists were put in a situation of “unacceptable risk” by the story, entitled ‘Army Base Terror Plot Foiled’ on the front page of The Australian’s second edition, yesterday. Overland claimed that the paper was available advance of the raids across several northern Melbourne suburbs at about 4.30am.

The editor in chief of The Australian, Chris Mitchell, denied that the story, by respected journalist Cameron Stewart, had placed anyone at risk. He said: “The Australian does not accept that the paper was available for sale at this time.”

However, the edition of the paper featuring Stewart’s story arrived at Tullamarine News in Melrose Drive in the northern suburb of Tullamarine at 1.30am in preparation for circulation to the various newsagents at the Melbourne Airport.

Tullamarine News is both a distribution hub and a retail outlet. It was available for sale over the counter from the moment it arrived at the store.

According to the manager, customers at that time of the morning usually include taxi drivers from the northern suburbs.

According to The Australian today: “The Melbourne cell  … was composed of ‘a nondescript group of Melbourne labourers and taxi drivers, of Somali and Lebanese descent’.”

The manager told Crikey that he could not recall selling any copies of The Australian at that time but confirmed that the second edition, with Stewart’s terrorism story on the front page, was available for retail sale.

The same edition was also on sale at Clayton Newsagency in Clayton Road, Clayton from 3am yesterday. The store opens at 2.30am and sells papers over the counter as soon as they arrive. The owner, Simon Richards, believes the delivery from the Herald and Weekly Times, including the second edition of The Australian, arrived between 2.30 and 3am. After checking his records, he told Crikey he sold his first copy of The Australian at 7.25am, well after the raids.

The Australian’s terror story edition was also available for sale at the Clarendon Newsagency in Clarendon Street, South Melbourne from 2am. The store attendant told Crikey this morning that when the person working in the store arrived at 2am yesterday there were bundles of the paper outside on the street and that anyone could have purchased a copy as soon as the shop opened. These are known as “unofficial sales” and aren’t registered in the sales records until another shop assistant arrives at around 6.30am. He also said that anyone could have stolen a copy even earlier as they are not monitored at that time of the morning. He predicted the papers may have been left on the footpath as early as 1am.

This raises another problem with the claim that the story could not have compromised the police operation. It is common practice for bundles of newspapers to be left on streets in the early hours of the morning and this was the case yesterday, despite the “elaborate” measures put in place to restrict the release of the story. Newsagents say that thefts are not uncommon. This means that literally thousands of copies, with details of the impending operation, were spread all over the suburbs for at least three hours before the first raids occurred at 4.30am.

The Australian’s Chris Mitchell was unavailable for comment this morning.

Peter Fray

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