Why does it matter that an editor of a newspaper plays extreme hardball with police over requests to hold a story? It wouldn’t matter, or not so much, if Australia had multiple such editors, and diffused media power.

But it is impossible to separate the extraordinary behaviour of News Limited editor Paul Whittaker, revealed in the Melbourne Magistrates Court yesterday without also considering the context of media power in Australia, and News Limited’s propensity to involve itself in the already devilishly murky world of police politics.

As Crikey reported from the Melbourne Magistrates Court yesterday, 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. 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?”

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 and thus the world was let in on the very candid conversation between Negus and the-then editor of The Australian.

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?” (See the full documents here.)

Bill Stuart, counsel for accused leaker Simon Artz, suggested to Australian Federal Police Commissioner Tony Negus yesterday that the Australian Federal Police, far from joining with News Limited in attempts to suppress details of its negotiations, should have urged exposure, because it might have helped “call to heel” a media organisation prone to making threats. Negus did not make any meaningful comment on this.

Negus told the court he was “devastated” by the leak, “uncomfortable” at being at the mercy of Whittaker, “disappointed” at Whittaker’s “reprehensible” initial response, including his questions about how many lives were at risk. He was fearful that if The Australian went ahead and published, the alleged terrorists would simply go down to the local shopping centre and machinegun people. But, in the end he was “happy” that the story was not published and his negotiations with Whittaker were to that extent successful — although the leak still forced the AFP to conduct raids as soon as possible, rather than waiting to gather more evidence, which had been a live option before then, and The Australian still published before the raids occurred, potentially putting the operation at risk.

It is a measure of The Australian‘s ability to report its own doings that all this was abbreviated in its own news reports this morning to Negus being quoted as being “happy” with The Australian. Oh boy.

Also of interest is the fact that reporters from The Australian in court yesterday emailed and distributed statements from Whittaker and Oz editor-in-chief Chris Mitchell to me, and other media organisations. I’ll choose to assume they did so as an act of helpfulness to fellow reporters, rather than because they were combining the roles of PR person and reporters.

If they were told to do it by their bosses, then one can only feel very sorry for them. So let’s pass on lightly.

Another important point. If the Cameron Stewart scoop at the centre of the current court hearings had been a high public interest story, revealing corruption, maladministration or cause for embarrassment in Australia’s security forces, then Whittaker would today be receiving the congratulations of his peers and colleagues for playing hardball over attempts to suppress the scoop.

But it wasn’t. And that is the problem at the core of this whole long saga. The original story was certainly a scoop, but it had the potential to abort an anti-terrorism operation, put lives at risk and, by the by, finger the alleged source — Stewart’s previous interview subject, Detective Senior Constable Simon Artz, who now faces the possibility of jail if found guilty of leaking to Stewart.

It is now clear, due to the evidence yesterday, that at the time negotiations began Whittaker and Cameron Stewart did not know that Operation Neath related to a potential attack on Australian soil. They thought it was all about support by locals for extreme groups in Somalia.

They did not at first know that Australian lives were at risk. It was the AFP, and Negus, who enlightened them about this. This sequence is spelled out in Chris Mitchell’s statement.

That fact gives some context to the way The Australian handled its negotiations, but does not change the core fact that there was no good public interest reason for playing such hardball. It was merely that The Oz wanted its scoop.

What was the result of The Oz publishing early on the morning of August 4, 2009? Merely that we found out about the raids a few hours earlier than we otherwise would have. That came at the cost of risk to lives and the operation.

Now, to the impact of media power. Yesterday’s events came at the end of more than 18 months of extraordinary efforts by The Australian to suppress the details of its dealings in this affair, and attack its critics.These attacks were part of the context that led to the resignation of Victoria Police Commissioner Simon Overland — a man whom, whatever his faults and errors of judgment, has done more to combat corruption in Victoria than any other copper.

I think it is safe to say that Overland would have survived his errors of judgment had it not been for the feral media campaign. So let’s connect some dots here.

In August 2009 when the Stewart scoop was first published, Overland was very critical of The Australian, accusing it of putting lives at risk.

Then the Victorian Office of Police Integrity and its federal counterpart, the Australian Commission for Law Enforcement Integrity (ACLEI) conducted a joint investigation into the source of the leak to Cameron Stewart. That report, which was shown in draft form to The Australian as part of the niceties of natural justice and administrative law, contained the information about the Negus-Whittaker negotiations, and was very critical of The Australian.

This was when editor-in-chief Christ Mitchell made his extraordinary threat to the OPI, saying that he would “use every journalistic and legal measure available to pursue what can only be described as an outrageous fabrication” in the report.

He was as good as his word. The Australian began Federal Court action to have the whole report suppressed. ACLEI responded by tapping the mat, and instead doing its own investigation, which did not address the conduct of The Australian, although it reported that conversations with Whittaker had taken place.

The OPI continued in its attempts to publish the original material, but  reluctantly settled the Federal Court action by withdrawing those parts of its report that criticised The Australian.

So much for the “legal measures” used by The Australian. Mitchell also used journalistic methods. Hedley Thomas was sicced on to Overland and the OPI and ran a series of articles critical of both. I have said what I think of all that elsewhere, earlier. The ABC’s Media Watch has also had its say.

This was part of the campaign against Overland that led up to his forced resignation. We saw another step in that campaign revealed last week, when the OPI issued another report revealing an extraordinary trail of misinformation, secret deals and media manipulation by ministerial adviser Tristan Weston.

As I wrote last week, not only The Australian but also other journalists have horses in the race, with sources leaking from other directions. This is a murky mix in which journalists are players. The conduct of journalists is not marginal to corruption investigations in Victoria. It is central.

So why does the hardball of Whittaker in his conversations with Negus matter? Because The Australian is a player, and a mighty one at that. It has been prepared to use its muscle in every way possible to attack its critics and defend and conceal its conduct.

“Held to ransom” were words used in court yesterday to describe what The Australian had done to the AFP. So too “blackmail”, although Negus rejected these words in favour of “negotiated solution”.

One other point should be made. The AFP has a vested interest in talking up how big and scary they found Whittaker and The Australian — how they felt their hand was forced and they had to give Cameron Stewart briefings to protect the operation.

That is because there is an alternative explanation for their conduct. Namely, that they dealt with The Oz in return for favourable media coverage. That is the possibility that was investigated by the ACLEI. If it was true, it might amount to corrupt conduct by police.

ACLEI found that police had not behaved corruptly, but had been genuinely trying to protect the integrity of their operation.

Why might people suspect otherwise?

Relations between The Oz and the AFP were at an all-time low, following criticism over the Haneef affair and Mick Keelty in particular. See this Crikey story from way back in 2007 for some context.

Last year, an AFP internal analysis of the media coverage was released under Freedom of Information legislation to The Canberra Times (sadly, its report is not available online). It revealed that the AFP felt the Haneef operation was the subject of “intense, sensationalist” reporting, much of it  “inaccurate, misleading or false”. In particular, the documents showed that the AFP regarded The Australian’s Hedley Thomas as the “main news breaker” on the story. “His consistent hostile approach made him extremely difficult to deal with, an experience AFP National Media had not normally encountered with The Australian.”

So we know that relations between the AFP and The Australian were at rock bottom. And, while it seems that Thomas had made some errors in his reporting of Haneef, there is at the same time no doubt that they were seriously good stories of great public interest, and the AFP was justly the subject of The Australian‘s scrutiny.

At the time of the Cameron Stewart leak, Tony Negus, then acting commissioner, was the new man on the block. Did he deal with Whittaker and organise the briefing for Stewart to try and ameliorate media coverage?

He firmly rejected any suggestions of that in the court yesterday, and the ACLEI investigation cleared him of any such motives. But one can see why people were worried that it might have been so.

The awareness of the awesome power of The Australian and News Limited hangs like a miasma over these proceedings.

That, combined with the worrying state of anti-corruption measures in Victoria, is why it matters so much, and why it is about much more than an editor sounding off in a slightly embarrassing fashion.