How much should you shoot your mouth off when you meet a journalist for a friendly coffee?

That’s the key question arising out of the sad case of Victoria Police detective Simon Artz, whose pre-sentence hearing was held at the County Court in Melbourne on Thursday. The resounding answer, it seems, is to be very careful what you say.

Artz, 42, pleaded guilty last year to a breach of police regulations for revealing details of an upcoming raid on local al-Shabaab-linked militants to Australian associate editor Cameron Stewart three-and-a-half years ago. Seven other charges were dropped.

That now-infamous July 30, 2009 tete a tete at Southbank’s Bear Brass cafe — during which Stewart scribbled details on Post-it notes — informed about 25% of the eventual front-page Gold Quill-winning splash “Army Base Terror Plot Foiled” published five days later in The Oz on August 4.

After Stewart went to the AFP for comment, The Australian agreed to hold its initial bare bones yarn for a more fulsome briefing, which included extra details of a separate Operation Neath anti-terror raid on Melbourne militants planning a suicide shooting spree at Sydney’s Holsworthy Army base.

Stewart was the main witness against Artz in the resulting “Ozleaks” investigation conducted by the now-defunct Victorian Office of Police Integrity and spiralling out into voluminous probes by the Australian Federal Police and its watchdog, the Australian Commission for Law Enforcement Integrity.

The lifetime cop, who worked tirelessly in Melbourne’s African migrant communities, is ridiculously facing a fine with conviction, a fine without conviction or a non-custodial sentence for the lapse in judgement that set in train an imbroglio ensnaring large swathes of the legal and media communities. Nick Papas, SC, for the Crown, said a non-custodial sentence of three years was within the range of punishments while Stephen Morrissey, SC, for Artz, argued for a fine.

During the hearing Morrissey said his “naive” client displayed a “complete meltdown of judgment”. Judge Mark Taft agreed the leak displayed a “colossal level of naivety”.

The motivation for Artz’s briefing remains murky, with neither the judge, the Crown nor his counsel able to shed much light. Morrissey agreed the divulgence was “inexplicable” but that “the context” of the leak might help to explain this “issue of human frailty”.

Papas could not point to any aggravating or mitigating circumstances and said Artz appeared to have made a serious error of judgement about how the information was to be used. Taft said “there is a world of difference” between general backgrounding of journalists and disclosing specific details of an imminent terror raid.

“What puzzles me…is why an experienced police officer would disclose this information. There’s no suggestion whatsoever that there is any financial benefit, any improper or indeed any association with the suspects…what would cause him to cross the line?”, he said.

Judge Taft described a text message sent to Stewart on the morning the story ran — congratulating him for the coverage on 3AW and page one treatment — as “remarkable” given the high-level machinations that had gone on behind the scenes in the intervening five days.

The court heard Artz was a highly dedicated, impressive and competent police officer who had devoted his life to the Force. Further, he was interested in the challenge of the Security Intelligence Group’s Africa desk and was worldly and well-informed.

A “bubble” of “man-to man trust” existed between Artz and Stewart, Morrissey said, owing to the joy of sharing information, although there may have been a small amount of self-importance or professional hubris involved in chatting with the fourth estate.

Morrissey likened his client’s actions to a “footballer having a meltdown on the field”. He said Artz had a genuine belief that friendly media liaison could assist his work in the community. But conversations with journalists were a double-edged sword: “What appears to be a good relationship with the media may not be when the media’s other duties and drives cut in.”

The Victorian and Federal Police, The Australian and Stewart all escaped criticism yesterday, despite suggestions in the lead-up that Artz himself might hold forth on the sequence of stressful events surrounding an OPI waiver he signed releasing Stewart from his journalistic obligations to protect his source. Morrissey said Artz’ signing of the release was “on piece with the congratulatory text, it betrays that naivety of self-deception”.

The Australian‘s story and follow-up police robes — which resulted in frenzied Federal Court action aimed at suppressing a draft OPI report believed to be critical of the newspaper — were “consequential” upon the failure of Artz to button his lip and respect confidentialities.

“It’s not a criticism … that Mr Stewart played him on a break here and Mr Stewart achieved a good outcome for the newspaper that was extremely good … He got an exclusive, detailed story, and the inside running on to an extra 75% of material within a very short space of time, aided by the firmness of his purpose of his editor [Paul] Whittaker who seems to have ‘out-muscled’ the AFP in discussions.”

Taft agreed, acknowledging that “any journalist would immediately run with that story”.

Morrissey called The Australian‘s AFP-negotiated chop out a “success” and a “responsible and sensible resolution” to “the problem created by Mr Artz”. The availability of the paper on Melbourne streets hours before the Neath raid was due to occur was a mere “glitch”.

News Limited critics have described the story as having limited public interest because the details of the raid would have inevitably been reported by other media hours later. On the morning in question, the paper had another scoop in the can — a bedside confession from Godwin Grech on his role in the “Utegate” saga. Further, they say The Australian‘s protection of Stewart at all costs and its hostility towards the OPI coloured its reporting of the case and others involving the watchdog and former Victoria Police chief commissioner Simon Overland.

Glowing references for Artz were entered as exhibits from luminaries including African community leader (and Melbourne byelection candidate) Berhan Ahmed, former Victorian Multicultural Commission chief George Lekakis and Victoria Police assistant commissioner Luke Cornelius.

During discussion over sentencing, Judge Taft said that in similar cases an inadvertent disclosure may attract a fine, but that the deliberate approach and the complicit text message meant a suspended term might be more appropriate. The fact the story turned out OK was “fortuitous” and due solely to the AFP and The Australian‘s negotiations over the publishing timeline.

“This is not a case of inadvertent disclosure, this is a case when Mr Artz has sought contact with a journalist for the purpose of providing information,” Taft said.

Artz is yet to tender his resignation to the Police, however a submission read to the court by Morrissey revealed that he wanted to remain in the force if they wanted him. The ex-constable is currently working as a funeral director for a fraction of his former salary.

Artz’s bail was extended and he will be sentenced on February 5.

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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