Former editor of The Australian, Paul Whittaker, bargained with the Australian Federal Police over how many lives would be lost if the newspaper published its scoop on the Operation Neath anti-terrorism operation before raids took place, it was revealed in the Melbourne Magistrates Court today.

The Commissioner of the AFP, Tony Negus, said that when he told Whittaker — now editor of the Daily Telegraph — that lives would be at risk if he published, Whittaker replied: “Well, how many lives are at risk?”

Negus said he responded that if the suspected terrorists were alerted to police attention, they “may actually go to the nearest shopping centre and decide to take action because they won’t have time to prepare properly”.

Negus said Whittaker replied: “Well, what are we talking about, one person being killed, or are we talking about a number of people being killed?”

The AFP had previously sought to suppress details of Negus’s conversation with Whittaker, but these attempts were defeated after Crikey and The Age got a lawyer into court to argue against suppression. Magistrate Peter Mealy ordered that the documents be released to the media this morning.

Crikey publishes the documents below.

Yesterday’s events came on the first day of what is expected to be a long committal hearing in the prosecution of former Detective Senior Constable Simon Artz, who is accused of leaking information to The Australian’s reporter Cameron Stewart.

It brings to an end more than a year of efforts by News Limited to suppress details of the Whittaker-Negus conversation, including  Federal Court action last year to suppress an Office of Police Integrity report containing the information.

The detailed insight into how The Australian, in the words of Artz’s lawyers, held the AFP “to ransom” comes at a sensitive time, with the federal government’s media inquiry, which is inquiring into media ethical standards, soon to hold public hearings and due to report early next year.

In a statement released this afternoon, Whittaker said that his recollection of the conversation differed from that of Negus.

“The questions I asked of Mr Negus, which are different from those contained in his statement, were consistent with normal journalistic rigour,” he said. “Editors have a duty to test the assertions of anyone seeking to prevent publication of a story.”

Whittaker said The Australian had shown an “abundance of caution and  good faith” in its dealings with the AFP, and that its action in agreeing to hold off publication until after raids had taken place had been praised by Attorney General Robert McClelland and the then-AFP commissioner Mick Keelty, as well as by journalists’ union head Chris Warren.

In court, Negus agreed he regarded Whittaker’s behaviour as “reprehensible” and said he and his colleagues had been “devastated” by the leak, which they believed could jeopardise months of work.

In a later conversation with Whittaker, Negus said he had told the editor “We’re begrudgingly providing you this briefing to actually stop the thing being printed tomorrow.”

Whittaker replied: “Well, we’re begrudgingly stopping the printing.”

As a result of the conversation with Whittaker, reporter Cameron Stewart received detailed briefings on Operation Neath in return for the newspaper holding off publication.

Negus rejected suggestions that the AFP had been held to ransom, saying it was a “negotiated solution”.

Negus was also asked why the AFP had joined with The Australian in trying to keep details of the conversation suppressed. He agreed that he had been “made aware” that News Limited wanted the suppression, but rejected suggestions that he had been threatened by News Limited, or that a deal had been done.

The leak had meant that the option of delaying the raids so that more evidence could be gathered — which was being considered at the time — had been lost. All the agencies involved — including ASIO, the AFP, Victoria Police and the NSW Crimes Commisssion — had agreed the raids should happen as soon as possible because of the leak.

They took place on August 4, 2009. The Stewart scoop was published and available on the streets of Melbourne in the early hours of that morning, some hours before the raids, Negus said.

It also became apparent in evidence yesterday that when Stewart approached the AFP he had only partial information on Operation Neath, understanding it to have an “international” implication, but not domestic.

It was the AFP that told him that alleged terrorists were planning an attack on an Australian army base.

(click on the pages for a larger version)

Peter Fray

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