The document at the centre of The Australian’s battle with the Victorian Office of Police Integrity will now not be released until after the prosecution of the police officer suspected of being reporter Cameron Stewart’s source.

The Director of the OPI, Michael Strong, has said that the tabling of the report, which The Australian took legal action to suppress, would be deferred until imminent prosecutions are concluded.

I understand that the Victorian Police officer concerned will be charged within the fortnight, and that Stewart is expected to be a key witness at his trial.

Those who have been following this imbroglio — and I know that the twists and turns now defeat all but the aficionados — will remember that it concerns Stewart’s breaking of a story about a police anti-terrorism operation last August, on the very day that raids took place and suspects were arrested.

The resulting inquiry into his source resulted in a report, which The Australian sought to suppress through a Federal Court action. That case settled a few weeks ago, with both sides conceding ground. The OPI agreed to edit the report to remove or tone down criticism of the newspaper. The Australian, on the other hand, abandoned its attempt to have the OPI’s inquiry ruled invalid, and all the evidence suppressed.

Some of that evidence, including a transcript of an interview with Stewart, will now form the basis of the case against the alleged source.

Meanwhile, the Australian Commission for Law Enforcement and Integrity — the OPI’s federal counterpart — is conducting a separate inquiry into the dealings that took place between Stewart and the Federal Police.

Since the OPI began to give The Australian grief, the newspaper has conducted a long-running campaign against it and Victorian Police Commissioner Simon Overland. This campaign has included uncritical interviews with some of the police officers who have been at the centre of corruption inquiries, including the notorious David “Docket” Waters.

For example, compare and contrast this piece of reporting from 2004 and this from the same year with this recent effort from The Australian,  for which Waters was a key source.

The newspaper’s Media section has even suggested that the OPI might be responsible for planting dead possums on Cameron Stewart’s car.

Stewart has combatted suggestions that he might have behaved unethically in naming his source to the OPI by gaining an opinion from the head of the journalists union, Chris Warren, that he did not breach the profession’s code of ethics.

I understand (and this information comes, lest I be misunderstood, from within News Limited) that Stewart might have believed he had a waiver of his obligations of confidentiality at the time he had his interview with the OPI.

For Crikey’s previous reporting on this story, see here and here.  For Media Watch’s take, see here. For a take from The Sunday Age, see here. For The Australian’s self justification, pick up virtually any edition, but perhaps start here.

This high stakes battle —  a case study in the media use of power and in journalists’ relations with their sources — is now about to enter its next phase, with the alleged source at the pointy end.

Peter Fray

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