The director of the Victorian Office of Police Integrity, Michael Strong, has accused The Australian of conducting a campaign designed to intimidate him and his staff during the OPI’s investigation of reporter Cameron Stewart.

The investigation has resulted in charges against a Detective Senior Constable Simon Artz, who is alleged to have been Stewart’s source for last year’s scoop announcing an anti-terrorism operation on the very day that raids were conducted and charges laid. Artz is due to appear in court facing eight charges next month.

In the OPI’s annual report, tabled in State Parliament today, Strong says:

“In the last four months of the financial year, OPI was subjected to sustained attack by The Australian newspaper against the background of an OPI operation in which both The Australian and one of its senior journalists were investigated. I have no doubt that the attack was intended to be intimidatory. Other sectors of the media viewed it as such. I am proud of the resilience of my staff in the face of this attack. OPI will not be intimidated in the pursuit of its statutory objectives.”

The comment concerns the long running “Oz Leaks” affair in which the newspaper took Federal Court action against the OPI in an attempt to have its investigation into the newspaper declared invalid and all evidence suppressed.

The case was settled out of court, but coincided with a vigorous campaign in which the newspaper ran numerous stories critical of Victorian Police Commissioner Simon Overland and the OPI.

In the report tabled today, Strong spends some time responding to the core allegations in The Australian’s campaign, particularly the claim that the OPI is too close to Victoria Police senior command and Overland in particular.

Strong states:

“It is occasionally suggested that the relationship between OPI and Victoria Police is too close. In contrast, others say our criticism of Victoria Police and its members is too harsh. So long as the criticism from both sides is more or less equal, we are probably getting the balance right. Achievement of my statutory objects would be impossible without a cooperative working arrangement with Victoria Police.”

He claims that his main objective — changing the culture of the police force — would not be possible without “mutual trust and co-operation” with force command.

“I am satisfied that OPI’s independence can be maintained in the context of an effective working relationship with Victoria Police, so long as boundaries are clear. I am equally confident that this is well understood by my senior managers and by Victoria Police command. When necessary, it has been and will continue to be underscored.”

Strong also tackles the notable failures of the OPI — the failure of the high-profile prosecutions of former Assistant Commissioner Noel Ashby and former Police Association Secretary Paul Mullett.

The Australian’s reports have given credence to suggestions from Mullett and Ashby that the prosecutions were the result of the OPI taking sides in internal police factional wars aimed at bolstering Overland’s career.

In his report, Strong says the failure of the Ashby prosecution was the result of an administrative error “albeit a highly significant one. The mistake will not be made again”.

The decision to charge Mullett was made “in good faith, after careful consideration” but failed because of insufficient evidence.

“There is no certainty in the outcome of any criminal prosecution. To prosecute only when success is certain would be to forsake one of OPI’s values — courage,” says Strong.

Strong says the failure of the prosecutions became a vehicle for the OPI’s critics.

“That said, I do not shy away from the implications of what occurred. Lessons have been learnt. Processes have been tightened. We are the wiser for that experience.”

The publicity, Strong says, resulted in the OPI being seen as “part of the problem rather than part of the solution”, yet Strong asserts that he doesn’t see his main measure of success as being convictions, but rather cultural change, with convictions serving as a corruption deterrent.

He reports that 39 police have been found guilty of criminal charges as a result of OPI activities, and more than 30 have resigned or been dismissed while under investigation, “which serves the same purpose”.

Strong also asserts that both the Proust review of the state’s anti-corruption  framework and Special Investigations Monitor have supported the OPI’s record, and in the case of the Proust review recommended an extension of its powers.

Peter Fray

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