Former Victoria Police media director Nicole McKechnie repeatedly warned the Australian Federal Police that its plan to distribute copies of The Australian exposing an anti-terror raid on the morning it occurred was flawed.
In an affidavit tendered to the Melbourne Magistrates’ Court and released this afternoon, McKechnie, a media veteran, states that she told AFP media coordinator David Sharpe that from her experience the broadsheet would hit the streets from midnight, despite The Australian‘s assurances that it would “hold” it for the paper’s second edition.
She says she began to receive reports at 5am that the paper had been available from 1.30am in city 7-Eleven outlets and newsagencies.
AFP deputy commissioner Peter Drennan has previously stated that he believed The Australian‘s journalist Cameron Stewart when he told him alleged terrorists would not have any forewarning.
Giving evidence last week, Drennan told the court that during a briefing given by the AFP, Stewart had promised the paper would not be available until 5am on the morning of August 4 “as it would not go to the printers until 11pm the previous night”.
Drennan said in his affidavit that when he became aware the paper had in fact been available much earlier, he contacted Stewart in the early hours of the morning. Stewart said he would make inquiries with The Australian‘s editor in chief Chris Mitchell.
“I recall Stewart being apologetic during my telephone conversation with him,” Drennan said. At about 7am Drennan spoke to the then-Australian editor Paul Whittaker. “I recall him saying words to the effect ‘we went to extraordinary lengths to ensure that article was not released until the warrants were executed,” he said. “I don’t know how this happened.”
The raids occurred around 4.30am, at least three hours after the first copies of the paper were first available. The Quill-winning front-page story — “Army base terror plot foiled” — has sowed the seeds for the committal hearing in the trial of Victoria Police officer Simon Artz, who is accused of leaking details to Stewart in advance.
In her affidavit, McKechnie said she became aware The Australian was available from about 1.30am via members of Victoria Police and that she had started to get calls from 5am reporting copies in city 7-Eleven outlets and newsagencies. Some camera crews had also begun assembling and Channel 7 had a sniff of something going down the night before.
On the night before the raids on 8.23pm, McKechnie despatched an email entitled “Stuff for tomorrow” with media talking points and press releases, some of which have been suppressed by the court.
However, other documents have not been suppressed. Included in evidence is an extraordinary exchange between Sharpe and McKechnie discussing a statement provided to the ABC’s Media Watch. In it, Sharpe bags a Weekend Australian follow-up story on August 8 as a “deliberate attempt to drive a wedge between AFP and Vicpol to ensure we don’t stick tight on this”.
By contrast, he says The West Australian and The Age had reported the story fairly: “As [sic] least the West Aus/Age etc have reported the fact the paper was on the streets and acknowledges the fact that despite the rubbish from the Aus, the operation was a huge success and a great joint operation.”
Sharpe says he will have “great pleasure dropping” to the media a Stewart email to Drennan stating editors have guaranteed the story “will not even be printed prior to 3pm”.
“Also cant [sic] wait to deliver the news that AFP have records of Stewart and the editor refusing to print the following day from the warrants and insisting they would go to print early. Bring on the fight,” he wrote.
In her affidavit, McKechnie states The Australian‘s reference to “3pm” was a typographical mistake and the author actually meant “3am” — still a full 90 minutes before the raids commenced.
The court also heard today that another purported source of Stewart’s had signed a “deed of release”, to enable the journalist to absolve himself of his ethical obligations in an interview with the feared Office of Police Integrity. The court had previously heard Artz had signed a similar document that permitted the Walkley winner to discuss his dealings with Artz.
Sharpe and AFP colleague Laura Keating are expected to front court tomorrow, with Stewart to appear in the witness box on Friday.