If you take last May’s efforts and today’s crop of stories in The Australian together I now rival Robert Manne in terms of words devoted to attacking me. For those that haven’t seen today’s paper, I’ve been attacked in an editorial, news story, accompanying infographic and the Cut and Paste column over my coverage of the paper’s reporting of Victorian policing issues. Criticising The Oz comes at a price.

I hope people will not lose sight of the fact that the important underlying issue is the impact of media campaigning on police politics. That is much more important than anything I have said or done.

Following the questions from The Australian and my response reported in yesterday’s Crikey, I received some follow up questions from The Oz‘s John Ferguson. Their tone and high emotion speak for themselves, and put the material in today’s newspaper into context:

1. Why do you believe that there was no public interest in revealing the details behind the country’s second largest terrorist investigation when publication had been sanctioned by the AFP?

2. You were told by MEAA head Chris Warren in June 2010 that Stewart had complied with the Code of Ethics in relation to confidential sources, yet you continued to imply that he had acted unethically, writing in September of that year;

“It would seem that The Australians senior reporter Cameron Stewart has decided to give evidence voluntarily in the case against the man accused of being his confidential source for a Quill Award-winning scoop on the Operation Neath anti-terrorism raids. It is an extraordinary development in a case destined to go down in the text books as a case study in how journalists deal with confidential sources.”

3. How can you justify these comments when you already knew that the MEAA had examined the issue and was satisifed?

4. Your claim that Federal Court documents showed that The Australian’s lawyers were nominating a fear that Stewart’s reputation would suffer as part of their grounds for opposing its release is wrong.   Why do you continue to perpetrate this defamatory and false claim?

5. How can you argue that the scoop deliberately put a source in harm’s way when neither that source, not the reporter, were aware of the true nature of the story until the AFP briefed Stewart?

6. Did you believe it was ethical or professional to make such accusations in relation to Stewart when you knew there was more to the story and that he was legal unable to tell the story behind the story?

7. Why did you make public claims – when no other media outlet in Australia did – that Stewart had broken the code of ethics in relation to confidential sources before you knew the full story?

8. Are you embarrassed by the fact that you did not consider the concept of a Release and that this lack of imagination from you led to to assume that Stewart had behaved unethically?

9. Why did you not adopt the approach taken by other media which saw early on that there were unique circumstances at play?

10. Why did you so readily believe that someone who had won many media awards over 25 years, including the Graham Perkin Award in 2009, would break such a fundamental rule of journalism and why were you so willing to prosecute his case when you did not know the full story and when he was unable to defend himself?

11. Why don’t you owe Cameron Stewart an unreserved apology for the series of articles during 2010 which implied that he had broken the MEAA Code of Condut in relation to confidential sources?

I didn’t think they merited a reply. There was little to add to my response reported yesterday.

For the record, the allegations of inaccuracy made against me are untrue. When it first emerged, initially before the Federal Court in action initiated by The Australian, that Stewart was the main witness against his source, Simon Artz, I reported that fact, together with the ethical issues that raised.

When it emerged some time later that Artz had signed a release, I reported that too, together with the questions it raised.

When the MEAA expressed the opinion that Stewart had done no wrong, I reported that too — and said that the rights and wrongs of the case would form material for journalism ethics courses well into the future. Which is true, as is evident from Stewart’s own account, published on the weekend.

Two parts of this story remain incomplete. First, the original Office of Police Integrity report, which The Australian spent so much time, effort and money trying to suppress, has never been released. The Federal Court action resulted in the OPI settling for a redacted version, removing criticisms of the newspaper. Even this has not yet been released.

Second, we have not yet heard from the person most centrally concerned, and with least power and voice: the source Simon Artz, who faces the possibility of jail. We may never hear his account, though it is likely something will be said on his behalf at his sentencing hearing next year.

My main criticisms of The Australian concerned later reporting, conducted after the newspaper had been criticised by then Victorian Police Commissioner Simon Overland and the Office of Police Integrity for its handling of Stewart’s Operation Neath scoop.

The newspaper then waged a campaign against Overland and the OPI, which formed part of the backdrop to Overland resigning. I stand by the criticisms I made, and continue to regard this episode as a most worrying example of the use of media power.

My reporting on this is all on the public record, and I laid out my concerns in detail in my submission to the Finkelstein inquiry more than a year ago.

There is nothing new in any of this, other than Artz’s guilty plea last week. Everything I have said on this issue, up until The Australian reviving it, is at least 12 months old.

For The Australian to devote so much space to a story where there is nothing new to report — even suggesting that my employer should take some unspecified action against me because I have dared to criticise The Australian — is really quite extraordinary.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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