An associate editor of The Australian, Cameron Stewart, told a court today that he had not deliberately pressured the Australian Federal Police to background him on a planned terror raid after receiving a rough briefing from a secret source.
Stewart had gone for a coffee at Southbank with Victoria Police officer Simon Artz on July 30, 2009 to broadly discuss the issue of domestic Somalis providing support to terror group al-Shabbab.
Later that day he filed a story to his editor, Paul Whittaker, based on a melange of facts gleaned from Artz and other assumptions drawn from his exisiting knowledge.
Artz is facing a commital hearing in the Melbourne Magistrates’ Court on eight charges of leaking material that snowballed into a Quill-award winning scoop — published five days later — that described an Operation Neath raid on the extremists on the day they occured.
Stewart, 49, denied suggestions, under cross examination from Artz’s counsel Bill Stuart, that he tried to use the preliminary story — written just hours after he met with Artz — as a stalking horse to extract greater details of the raid from the AFP or the Attorney-General’s department.
The journalist has admitted that only scant details were obtained from Artz and that the original effort was a pale imitation on what was finally printed.
“Weren’t you angling to present a situation…if you don’t give me a briefing, if you don’t arrange for discussions to occur, I’m going to publish details of an operation in The Australian the following day?,” Stuart asked.
Stewart: “Definitely not.”
Stuart: “You knew that this suggestion…was designed to put pressure from Whittaker onto the AFP to give up information or we’ll publish?”
Stewart: “No, absolutely not.”
Stuart: “I suggest to you that this was part of your plan to put pressure through Whittaker on anybody who contacted him.”
Stewart: “That’s not correct.”
Stuart: “…in order to get what you indeed were wanting, a full briefing on Operation Neath.”
Stewart: “That’s not correct.”
Stuart: “That’s what you got in the end though, wasn’t it?”
Stewart: “In the end…that occurred through other means.”
A follow-up email from Stewart to Whittaker minutes after the story was filed reiterated the point there was no “domestic side” to the terror operation, at the same time the AFP were preparing to contact Whittaker to discuss the security implications of the planned splash.
Stewart said that he “logically” hadn’t included a domestic element because Artz hadn’t referred to it. Instead, he wrote of an imminent “swoop” on members of a Melbourne “cell” accused of channeling money and travelling to Africa to assist al-Qaeda linked militants.
The dual-Walkley winner said he could not be totally sure of some elements of his discussion with Artz because he only scribbled it on Post-it-Notes, which had since been disposed of.
During an often-tense exchange, Stewart was lead through a point-by-point dissection of sourcing for the draft yarn.
The court also heard that emails sent from Stewart’s email account at around that time could not be found because his “very bad” computer had been rebuilt twice since the second half of 2009. He said a request that News Corporation’s IT department to locate the emails had been unsuccessful. However, Stewart pledged that he would search his home PC this weekend to discover anything pertinent.
Before lunch, it was suggested that Stewart had a personal hand in the unprecedented “deed of release” signed by Artz to absolve him of his ethical duties as a journalist during an initial Office of Police Integrity inquiry in 2009.
However Stewart said he did not know Artz had signed the deed until he was presented with it on October 23.” That viewing changed his position “fundamentally”, the journalist said.
When questioned on whether he had a “inkling” it was being sought, Stewart said he would have to consult with his lawyers — including leaking Silk Phillip Priest — for fear of breaching legal and professional privilege. Magistrate Peter Mealy intervened, stating that Stewart was not within “coo-ee” of breaching client confidentiality and directed him to answer the question.
Cross-examined on why he failed to question the circumstances in which the deed was signed, Stewart responded that it appeared the document had been made willingly and in good faith. He has maintained he would not normally be giving evidence in the case but for the existence of the deed.
It raised the question as to why he had corroborated with the OPI when he clearly considered – alongside his fellow editors at the The Australian – the organisation to have been severely irresponsible in the use of its coercive powers.
Earlier, a key plank in the defence case appeared to have dissolved when a purported phone call between Stewart and the Australian Federal Police was shown to have in fact emanated from the newspaper’s Canberra bureau switchboard.
Amid a torrid back-and-forth, defence counsel repeatedly pressed Stewart to broadly disclose his sources across the nation’s intelligence agencies.
Stewart maintained that he didn’t or couldn’t recall any unauthorised contact between himself and any other leakers other than Artz, who at that time manned the Africa desk of the Victoria Police Security Intelligence Group.
After his denials were read into the court record, in what many observers thought was shaping as a king hit, Stuart read out an ACT landline number — “02 6270 7000” — that he said was the AFP’s switchboard. However, as many journalists watching on immediately noted, that number in fact belongs to The Australian’s Canberra bureau.
Office of Police Investigator Sharon Kerrison then took the stand and revealed that according to the OPI’s “intelligence” unit, the number belonged to Stewart’s employer.
In a trial that could send a shiver down the spine of Victorian hacks and heighten calls for a state-specific shield law, Stewart was repeatedly pressed by Stuart on his contacts across ASIO, the AFP and the Victoria Police in relation to terrorism stories, of which he has penned hundreds over the years.
But Stewart — visibly distressed at the idea of giving up his sources beyond the “deed of release” — wouldn’t have a bar of it.
“Sir, I am willing to give evidence because I have been released in relation to Operation Neath,” he said. “I am not willing to talk about who I may or may have spoken to across a vast range of agencies on completely different issues. I have an ethical responsibility not to divulge that and I will not do so.”
Stewart was directed to answer the question by Magistrate Peter Mealy in relation to counter-terrorism in general — not just Neath. An extremely tense 30-second pause ensued before Stewart asked Mealy why the question was relevant.
“My answer is I don’t recall at this point,” he said.
He said he had spoken only to Artz from the period after he returned from leave in the Kimberley and the time of writing the initial story.
“I had no source at the AFP that I could go to at that time that I could go to to discuss Operation Neath,” he said.
The contact had been prompted by an email from Artz earlier in July stating that “something’s brewing” on the Somali front.
Earlier, Stuart noted the Media, Entertainment and Arts Alliance’s code of ethics had no standing under state law and that Stewart was required to answer his questions.
Stuart defended his line of questioning, saying that the issue of who Stewart had contacted when “goes straight to the heart of the issue”.
“I am entitled to explore what other contact Stewart might have made to supplement this [Artz’s] information,” he said. “Without his evidence there would be no prosecution.”
The Alliance issued a statement from its federal secretary Chris Warren this morning backing Stewart and saying that after the deed of release was signed he had “no protection under the Code to continue to suppress information once he has been released from his ethical obligation.”
In fact, Stewart was required to cooperate with the OPI and later, testify in court.
“The Journalist Code of Ethics does not support a journalist breaking the law by refusing to give testimony in court where there is no journalist privilege. Stewart, once released, no longer was entitled to journalist privilege,” the MEAA statement read.
Prosecutor Nick Papas SC objected to Stuart’s “fishing expedition”, saying that he would “call in the attorney-general” under the Human Rights Act to ensure the journalist was protected.
At one point Stewart took up the cudgels directly with Stuart to further clarify what the leading barrister meant by the term “source”.
“I think you are being very unclear as to the notion of sources,” he said. “Are you talking about people you have discussions about events taking place, are you talking about unauthorised disclosures of information, what are you talking about, where do you draw the line?”
In a dramatic morning of evidence, the media at one point were banned from reporting the proceedings owing to Stewart’s past as a former spook at the Defence Signals Directorate. However, the order was later lifted.
The committal hearing continues next week.