When I first bumped into Vic Police’s motto I had to smile … you find the same exhortation on road signs as you drive off the channel ferry at Calais to remind the poms to drive on the wrong side of the road. No matter, Victoria Police has far bigger problems than that.
As an outsider looking in it was hard for me to escape the suspicion that Simon Overland, former commissioner of Victoria Police, was up to his neck in state politics, unhealthily influencing the Office of Police Integrity, possessed of a short fuse and not too smart. Cameron Stewart’s article tends to harden that suspicion. It is the inside story of a reporter drawn into a modern-day Spanish Inquisition. I have pasted the entire article because, although the Australian likes to keep its memory alive by revealing selected content, links tend to hit the paywall …
IT began as no more than a modest tip-off.
I pushed my coffee aside, pulled some post-it notes from my pocket and started scribbling.
On the other side of the table Victoria Police detective senior constable Simon Artz spoke quietly as he watched boats glide along the Yarra River opposite our spot at the Southbank’s Bear Brass cafe.
It was 10.30am on July 30, 2009. I scrawled down the words “Somalia,” “terror funding”, “Australian Federal Police” and “raids.” By the time we finished our coffee the policeman had outlined the bare bones of an interesting news story, but little more.
As I then understood it, the AFP and Victoria Police were preparing to launch raids on a small group of Somali and Middle Eastern men in Melbourne suspected of providing funding to the radical terror group Al-Shabab in Somalia. For my newspaper, The Australian, it was a good story, but not a huge scoop, because it related to support for a terror group in distant Africa rather than a here-and-now terror threat in Australia.
Neither Artz nor I had an idea that we had already set off a chain of events which would ultimately end his police career and contribute indirectly to the demise of Victoria Police chief commissioner Simon Overland and the state’s police watchdog, the Office of Police Integrity.
UNKNOWN to me, when I met Artz for coffee that day, a top secret counter-terror investigation was coming to a head behind closed doors inside the AFP, Victoria Police and ASIO. Called Operation Neath, it was the second largest counter-terror operation in Australia’s history.
It had begun seven months earlier when authorities had intercepted a phone call in Melbourne’s west between an Australian-Lebanese man and a Somali man. They were heard discussing how to send some Australians to Somalia to fight but the plot later morphed into something far more frightening, when they and a group of hardline Islamic friends in Melbourne decided instead to launch a suicide attack on Sydney’s Holsworthy Army base. Investigators who eavesdropped on their plans were horrified.
Now the police were preparing to swoop and the raids across Melbourne were tentatively planned for the following Tuesday, August 4.
A week earlier, I had returned from holiday to find an email sent to me by Artz with a New York Times article “A call to Jihad, Answered in America,” about the radicalisation of Somalis in the US.
I had known the policeman for several years. He worked for Vic Pol’s Special Intelligence Group focusing on African communities, especially the sometimes volatile Somali community.
We were not friends but we had mutual areas of interest and would catch up for an occasional coffee or lunch to swap tales about police politics, terrorism and Africa. He gave me a few minor stories and once allowed me to quote him by name, but mostly we just chatted.
When I received Artz’s email, I became curious. We had an exchange of messages where he hinted that something was happening and that while he couldn’t tell me much, he was happy to meet for coffee.
When we met on that Thursday morning Artz was relaxed and jovial. He told me that raids were planned for the following week aimed at catching a group suspected of funding Al-Shabab, but did not say anything about a plot to attack an Australian army base.
I thanked him for the tip and told him I would need to run it past the AFP to seek their comment before I wrote the yarn.
We left on good terms, and I attended another meeting before arriving back into the office at around lunchtime. I knew the AFP would be slow to respond to a request for comment so I called their spokesman in Canberra early and gave them a rough outline of what I knew and asked for comment, either on or off the record.
Almost immediately I could sense alarm in the voice of the AFP spokesman. I was puzzled — this was not a big story in the relative scheme of national security reporting. What was the fuss? Before long the AFP spokesman was asking if I would consider holding the story because to publish it might jeopardise the investigation. I told him The Australian would never publish anything that would jeopardise an investigation but that he would need to talk with the editor or editor-in-chief who had the final say on the publication of stories.
Shortly afterwards the then acting AFP chief Tony Negus rang the then editor Paul Whittaker to urge him to hold my story.
Negus told Whittaker that The Australian only had a small part of the Operation Neath story and that to publish it the next day could cost lives. He offered no further details but Whittaker quickly agreed not to run the story.
Negus then offered to give me a full briefing on Neath, promising that we could run the story as soon as it was safe to do so.
I flew to AFP headquarters in Canberra the next day and was ushered into a room with three senior AFP officers. I had barely pulled out my notebook when they told me that Neath involved a plot by extremists to launch a suicide attack on the Holsworthy army base. The aim of these would-be terrorists, they said, was to kill as many soldiers as they could before they themselves were killed.
I was stunned. Clearly I had only learned a small part of a much bigger story.
I was also instantly worried for Artz. He had chosen to arrange our tip-off meeting via police email. Neither of us was concerned about this fact at the time, because we had no concept of the gravity of Operation Neath. I knew from my previous reporting on terror-related issues that the story Artz had told me was not big enough to trigger a witch-hunt. But the belated discovery of the deadly Holsworthy plot made an investigation likely and had caught us both out. Had he known that this was a far bigger story I’m sure Artz would have never left an obvious email trail.
I HELD on to the explosive story of the Holsworthy terror plot for the next four days.
At around 7pm on the evening of Monday August 3, a senior AFP officer called me at home and gave permission for The Australian to print my stories on Neath the next morning when the police raids were due to take place.
I slept fitfully until the alarm went off at 5am. Lying in bed I held my breath as the radio news headlines were read out.
The lead story was that police had raided several homes across Melbourne apprehending at least four men on suspicion of being involved in a terrorist plot.
I finally breathed out. The raids appeared to have gone off without a hitch.
I texted an AFP spokesman to ask how it had all gone, but his reply surprised me.
His text said something like “papers came out too early causing security problems for us.”
I was puzzled. The Australian had promised the AFP it would run the stories in its last editions. I had told the AFP, verbally and in writing, to double check production times with my editors so there were no misunderstandings. The Australian kept its side of the deal by printing the stories in its final editions but it turns out that the AFP never made the call to clarify these printing times. The police had also not told us what time the raids would take place. Unknown to the editors, police chose the relatively late time of 4.30am to conduct the raids.
The combination of these factors meant that several hundred copies of the paper’s final edition which had my stories on the front page were available before the raids were carried out.
I called a senior AFP officer and asked what had happened. He said the raids had gone off without a hitch but that Victoria Police were furious about the early publication of the story. The AFP also said Vic Pol were also furious about the AFP decision to brief The Australian about the raids.
Even though the raids had been successful and the suspects had all been arrested without incident, the real drama was yet to begin.
At the joint press conference with Negus and Victoria Police chief commissioner Simon Overland in Melbourne, Overland took a hefty swing at the newspaper, effectively accusing it of breaking its word with the AFP.
“I am concerned that despite those negotiations copies of that paper I’m told were available on the streets here in Melbourne at 1.30am this morning, well before the warrants were actually executed,” he said.
“This in my view represents an unacceptable risk to the operation, an unacceptable risk to my staff.”
In fact a senior policeman later confided to The Australian that there was no danger because police already had the suspects’ houses surrounded, were monitoring any communications between them and knew they were unarmed.
Overland’s anger was trumped up to send a message to the AFP, which Overland believed may have botched its deal with the newspaper. He also accused the AFP of hogging the glory for the successful raids carried out only hours earlier.
Negus had a briefing note in his pocket thanking The Australian for its responsible coverage of the story. On seeing Overland’s temper, he chose not to read it out.
Overland’s comments ensured that The Australian was wrongly portrayed as being careless about national security.
A federal inquiry by the Australian Commission for Law Enforcement Integrity would later find that the early publication of the story was the result of an accidental miscommunication between the AFP and the paper over print times.
As a result of Overland’s comments the tenor of my numerous media interviews that morning changed from “tell us about your great scoop” to “how do you respond to police claims that you put lives at risk?” It was a case of hero to zero.
I received a text from Artz that morning “Nice work, 3AW (radio) and page 1”, it said. It was sent from his police phone.
For the next few days Overland and this newspaper traded blows over who was to blame for the early appearance of some newspapers on the street.
But I was more concerned by something else. Several days later, as I was sharing a beer with workmates, some of whom were slapping me on the back for the scoop, I received word that the state’s police watchdog, the Office of Police Integrity, had launched an investigation into my source.
I KNEW about the OPI and their methods of investigation. I knew that its investigators would be listening to everything I did. I could say nothing of consequence about the story on the phone or on email, perhaps even in my home and my car.
I hoped that common sense would prevail — that the OPI would recognise that the raids went off successfully, the cops got their crooks and Operation Neath was a success.
But Overland’s outburst had raised the stakes for everyone. The OPI was known for having an unusually — and some would say an unhealthily — close relationship with Overland. They weren’t going to let this one go. They wanted a scalp.
In early October 2009 I received a call from an OPI investigator informing me that they were walking to my office to slap a subpoena on me to appear in their star chamber where I would be asked to reveal my source.
The condition of that subpoena was that, apart from my lawyers, I could tell no one, not even my wife, that I was being interrogated.
I remember being angered and concerned about the subpoena, but not unduly so. Surely the worst that could happen was that I refuse to reveal my source, they prosecute me and I spend a week in jail.
If only it had been that simple.
I ended up having two separate meetings with the OPI which, for various reasons, took place outside the star chamber rather than inside it, meaning these were not sworn interviews.
During the brief initial meeting on October 16, I told OPI investigators that I could not reveal any confidential sources, consistent with the Code of Ethics issued by the journalists’ union, the Media Entertainment and Arts Alliance.
However at the second meeting — the formal interview — a week later OPI investigators presented me with a Deed of Release signed by Artz. His statement read:
“I (Simon Artz) hereby voluntarily release Cameron Stewart of The Australian from all professional and ethical obligations which he may feel he owes to me in relation to information I have communicated to him in any form whatsoever since 1 November 2008.
“This voluntary release applies to all communications I have made to Cameron Stewart in any form whatsoever since 1 November 2008 notwithstanding;
a; any implied or express desire that I may have made to remain anonymous; and
b; any implied or express desire that I may have made to keep the information confidential.
“I have freely and willingly provided this release without any inducement, threat or coercion of any kind whatsoever and do so with the knowledge that a member of the OPI may show Cameron Stewart of The Australian newspaper a true copy of the Release to assist the Director, Police Integrity, to carry out his functions under the Police Integrity Act 2008 (Vic).”
Artz’s decision to sign this Deed of Release was a disaster in every sense.
He had signed it a month earlier, voluntarily and without coercion. In doing so, he had upturned the fundamental principle which allows journalists to protect a source under the MEAA’s Code of Ethics.
As the MEAA would later say in a statement: “The Deed of Release put Stewart in a position where he had no grounds or ability to refuse to co-operate with investigators. If the source voluntarily chooses to release a journalist from their ethical requirement to maintain confidentiality, it is not for the journalist to determine whether or not to comply.
“Stewart has no protection under the Code to continue to suppress information once he has been released from his ethical obligation. Indeed, once released he is under ethical, moral and legal requirements to co-operate with the law.”
I was in a terrible position. I tried to fathom why Artz would sign such a release given that he was clearly a source of my story, although not the main source. At that moment I guessed that Artz had signed the release so that I could tell the OPI the simple truth — that he was not the one who leaked to me the plot to launch a terror attack against the Holsworthy Army base. My evidence would identify Artz as a minnow in the affair, surely better for him than being wrongly blamed for leaking the whole thing.
The OPI already knew that Artz and I had met that day. Quite apart from the email trail, Artz had made note of our meeting in his police diary. He was the obvious suspect. The OPI wanted to know exactly what he had said to me. On the basis of Artz’s release, I told them that he had given me no more than a modest tip-off. The true leaker in Operation Neath, I told them, was the AFP.
AFTER I gave an unsworn interview to the OPI, the investigation fell silent again for some months. I harboured a false hope that the OPI would look at the big picture, give Artz a minor rap on the knuckles, and get on with the real mission of investigating serious cases of police corruption.
Once again, I underestimated the police politics at play. I was about to learn first-hand that the OPI was a deeply flawed watchdog.
In March 2010, the OPI presented The Australian with a draft report into its investigation into the circumstances of our stories on Operation Neath including the issue of when the papers hit the streets that morning.
The document was jaw-dropping. Riddled with inconsistencies, factual errors and inherent bias, it sought to portray The Australian as having been responsible for an alleged near miss in national security. It ignored all of the ample and concrete evidence which militated against such a conclusion. The draft report was highly critical of the newspaper but silent on the role of the AFP which had provided me with almost the entire story and then approved the publication of that story on the day of the raids.
The OPI was using the example of Operation Neath to argue a broader philosophical case for tighter curbs on media reporting on national security.
The editor-in-chief Chris Mitchell wrote back to the OPI saying: “The latest version of the report represents the greatest corruption of truth I have seen in an official document in 18 years as a daily newspaper editor and 37 years as a journalist.”
The newspaper wrote a rebuttal addressing more than 100 separate points and sought an injunction to prevent publication on the grounds that OPI was exceeding its statutory powers in seeking to criticise a newspaper rather than the conduct of police.
The injunction was granted, but this served to energise News Limited’s critics who assumed that the paper must therefore have something to hide.
The OPI sensed its opportunity to play up the rivalry between media groups to its advantage. It leaked Mitchell’s letter to Fairfax’s The Age, which ran it across the front page. Suddenly the country’s two largest newspaper companies were trading shots over the whole affair.
Overland was also coming under pressure at this time after The Australian conducted a forensic investigation into whether he had broken the law by passing on information from covert telephone taps, saying the allegations have never been independently investigated.
The then opposition leader Ted Baillieu called for a federal inquiry into whether Overland broke the law. It was the first of a series of rifts between Baillieu and Overland that would culminate a year later in Overland’s resignation.
The OPI’s reputation was now taking a battering via a series of hostile media reports into its operations. Within months, Baillieu promised that if elected, he would scrap the watchdog.
Six months after the Operation Neath story, in early 2010, both the OPI and Overland were under siege.
In such a toxic atmosphere, the last thing the OPI would want would be to let Artz off the hook.
Well placed sources told me that at the height of this controversy, the OPI held a meeting to discuss whether or not to lay criminal charges against Artz. I am told at least one investigator argued against the laying of such charges. That person was overruled.
ONE morning in early June 2010, I was dropping my one-year-old son off at his childcare centre in Brighton when I noticed two figures standing near the front door in the pouring rain.
One of these OPI investigators stepped forward and grinned: “Remember me?”
As parents with their toddlers walked past us, the investigators handed over an envelope ordering me to appear in the magistrate’s court to swear a statement about Artz based upon my earlier unsworn evidence or else face charges.
They could only have known about my morning routine with my son by following me from my house. And why? To help them nail a cop who did very little but who was now trapped by a tempest which had little to do with national security and everything to do with police politics. As I drove away from the childcare centre I pondered the parallels between the OPI and the FBI in the final days of J. Edgar Hoover’s reign. These were agencies that were drunk with power.
Days later, the then OPI director Michael Strong sent an email to his staff admonishing his senior investigators John Nolan and Paul Jevtovic for the decision to confront me in a childcare centre.
But Strong was not upset because he thought it was wrong for his men to follow a journalist into a childcare centre. He was upset because it might not look good if it got out.
“I’m sure there were reasons why Cameron Stewart was approached in the carpark of the childcare centre, but (OPI media spokesman) Paul (Conroy) tells me it is generating a fair bit of negative talk among journos,” Strong wrote in an email later obtained under freedom of information laws.
“We know the Oz take every opportunity to criticise us and make Stewart look like a victim of persecution . . . we must avoid wherever possible giving the Oz a free bite.”
In July Artz was charged with eight offences relating to unauthorisised disclosures including the serious criminal charge of misconduct in public office.
What’s more, Artz’s lawyers indicated that he intended to plead not guilty. Artz’s argument would be that I knew about Operation Neath prior to our meeting on July 30 and that he only confirmed aspects which I already knew.
This news made an already bad situation much worse.
Why on earth, I wondered, would Artz release me to give evidence to the OPI only to then challenge that evidence? Did he now regret signing that release? Did he do it under duress? What was in his head? The question now haunted me.
With the countdown to my court appearance fast looming, The Australian appointed a new legal team for me headed by the eminent barrister Robert Richter.
I explained my situation to Richter and my concern that Artz may not have signed that Deed of Release as voluntarily as was claimed in the deed.
I was wavering as to whether I would give a sworn statement or not. If the OPI had been unfair to Artz, I needed to give him a route to escape.
I had never contacted Artz directly at any point during this period because I had been under legal advice not to do so.
But Richter’s approach was refreshing. He picked up the phone and put the question directly to Artz’s lawyers — could they please tell us the status of the Deed of Release.
I waited for the answer, which came the following day: Artz had signed the Deed of Release to assist the OPI to carry out its investigations under the Police Integrity Act. In other words, Artz was re-confirming that he signed the release voluntarily and without coercion in order to assist the OPI.
Upon hearing this, I recall Richter bellowing at me saying that I had a unambiguous legal and moral obligation to give evidence under these circumstances.
However I wanted more than a legal opinion. I began to quietly seek the opinions of senior journalists whose work and ethics I respected. Almost all of them advised me to give sworn evidence. A handful disagreed, saying it was all too messy and the best thing to do would be decline the statement and go to jail even without the moral protection of journalist’s privilege.
In the end, I felt that the deciding vote should be cast by the representatives of my profession, the journalists’ union which administers the Code of Ethics. The MEAA’s reaction was firm and unanimous; the right thing to do was to testify.
A statement released on the case several months later and signed by Walkley Advisory Board chairman and veteran reporter Laurie Oakes, as well as MEAA chief Chris Warren and representatives from the ABC, The Age and the Herald Sun, stated in part: “It is not for journalists to speculate as to a source’s motives for releasing them from a confidentiality agreement — nor can a journalist choose to ignore the decision to release him or her from a confidentiality agreement.”
After my meeting with the MEAA, I came to the conclusion that I had little choice but to sign a statement in relation to Artz. Despite knowing I had the support of the union, my employer and most of my peers, it was the hardest thing I have done in 25 years of journalism.
When Artz’s committal hearing began in November last year, I described myself as a “reluctant witness”. It was a gross understatement.
Under cross examination I explained that Artz was nothing more than a bit player in this whole affair, describing him as essentially a “good man”.
“I know he was well regarded by the African community, with which he dealt a lot, well regarded in legal circles and well regarded amongst his colleagues, and my personal belief is that he certainly doesn’t fit the mould of a corrupt copper,” I told the court.
“On the contrary, he is a man who made a misjudgment on one day of an otherwise stellar 20-year police career.
“I personally find it abhorrent the OPI chose to recommend criminal charges against Mr Artz for (what) could surely be dealt with by internal disciplinary procedures within Victoria Police and I wonder to what degree that decision was fuelled by the toxic, high-profile atmosphere injected in this case from day one by Simon Overland.”
This week a resolution was finally reached when Artz pleaded guilty to unlawful disclosure of information.
It ends a three-year saga made worse at every turn by the dark heart of the OPI and the police politics of the Overland era. Artz is now gone, but so is Overland. The OPI is in its final weeks currently awaiting execution, to be replaced by a new overarching anti-corruption body.
There were no winners. After all, it was just a modest tip-off. No less, no more. It should never have come to this.