The Australian Government Solicitor and the Australian Federal Police are co-operating with News Limited in an attempt to suppress the contents of a key conversation between the then editor of The Australian, Paul Whittaker, and Police Commissioner Tony Negus.

The high stakes surrounding the contents of the conversation are turning what would normally be low-key preliminary hearings in the case against former Detective Senior Constable Simon Artz, accused of leaking information to The Australian, into a lawyer’s bun fight.

This morning the Melbourne Magistrates Court was packed for discussions about the suppression, and access to records of telephone numbers rung by reporter Cameron Stewart during his research.

The Government’s Solicitor, representing the Australian Federal Police, has notified the court that it will seek  to suppress the contents of the conversation. It was acknowledged in court that News Limited also wants it suppressed.

The AFP is expected to argue that the conversation between Negus and Whittaker should be suppressed because it needs to be able to deal confidentially with the media, including on matters of national security.

A spokeswoman for the Government Solicitor refused to comment this morning when asked whether News Limited had prompted the suppression moves. Whittaker, now editor of The Daily Telegraph, also declined to comment to Crikey.

Also represented in court this morning was Stewart and, separately, The Australian publisher Nationwide News. Lawyers acting for Crikey and Fairfax newspapers notified the court that they would oppose the application for suppression.

The conversation between Negus and Whittaker, in mid-2009, resulted in The Australian being given a highly sensitive briefing. This resulted in Stewart’s Quill Award-winning scoop in which he gave details of an anti-terrorism operation on the very morning that raids and arrests were made.

The contents of the conversation between Negus and Whittaker have been the subject of previous suppression attempts by News Limited. This information was originally contained in an Office of Police Integrity report, highly critical of The Australian, which News Limited took Federal Court action to suppress.

The conversation was also the focus of a previous inquiry by the Australian Commission for Law Enforcement Integrity into whether the AFP had been corrupt, providing information to The Australian in return for favourable media treatment.

That inquiry concluded that the AFP had not been corrupt, because Negus had, as a result of the conversation with Whittaker, “perceived that they needed to do more” to protect the anti-terrorism operation from compromise. As a result, Stewart received the briefings and The Australian agreed to hold off publication until the morning of the raids

What did Whittaker say to Negus to create this “perception”? And what did Negus say in reply? That is what the AFP and News Limited don’t want you to know.

The hearing is continuing at the time of writing, but the issue is unlikely to be finally resolved until the committal begins, presently scheduled for November 2.

Discussion also continues about access to  records of telephone numbers called by Stewart during his research. Lawyers for Stewart have not, at the time of writing, declared his position on the suppression. Lawyers for Artz have declared they will take no position on the suppression application.

UPDATE:

Reading the details of a conversation between AFP Commissioner Negus and the then editor of The Oz would leave people “breathless”, the Magistrate hearing the Artz case said this afternoon.

The lawyer acting for Crikey and The Age, Sandip Mukerjea, applied to be allowed to see the statement by Negus detailing the conversation on condition that he agree to keep it confidential. After objections from the Australian Federal Police, Magistrate Peter Mealy denied the application, saying the request could be made again when the committal hearing begins in November.

Mr Mukerjea said he would wait with “breathless anticipation”. Mealy replied: “When you read the material you will be even more breathless, I imagine.”

The hearing is now adjourned until next week.

Peter Fray

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