The criminal courts are likely to be the scene of the next episode in the thorny saga of how The Australian newspaper reported leaked information on the Operation Neath anti terrorism raids last year.
Yesterday the Australian and the Victorian Office of Police Integrity settled their case before the Federal Court after a morning of tough negotiation.
The Director of the OPI, Michael Strong, told Crikey this afternoon that he now intended to move “very soon” to brief prosecuting authorities about criminal offences, with the alleged source of The Australian’s story – a Victorian police officer currently suspended from duty – the main person of interest.
In the meantime it seems that The Australian has succeeded in preventing the OPI from issuing a report containing criticism of its conduct in researching and publishing the story. But The Australian has also conceded significant ground, abandoning its attempt to have the OPI’s entire investigation declared invalid and the evidence suppressed.
The Director of the OPI, Michael Strong, told Crikey he had made some concessions in the settlement and that “certain disputed issues and tentative findings” would not appear in his report, which he hoped to have tabled in Parliament in July – although this may be delayed depending on the timing of the trail of those charged with terrorism offences as a result of Operation Neath.
“I needed a circuit breaker, and to get it I had to make concessions, “ Strong said. He said there was a limited period in which charges could be laid, and that the deadline had been fast approaching, adding to the urgency of being free to brief prosecutors.
But Strong stressed that the evidence gathered in the investigation remained “in tact”, and able to be used to brief prosecutors and the Commissioner of Police.
Meanwhile the editor of The Australian, Paul Whittaker said the paper had gone to court “only as a last resort”.
“We had serious concerns with the way the investigation into the alleged leaking of details of Operation Neath was being conducted by the Australian Commission for Law Enforcement Integrity and the Office of Police Integrity. We commenced the action in the Federal Court because we believed the police misconduct agencies were acting beyond the scope of their powers and that the newspaper wasn’t being given a fair hearing in relation to a number of issues, only one of which involved the agencies’ dealings with Cameron Stewart. We are happy with the settlement.”
Assuming the Victorian police officer suspected of being Stewart’s source is now charged, it would seem that Stewart is likely to be a witness in the case. The OPI has previously said in court that the key piece of evidence is a transcript of an interview between the OPI and Stewart.
But Strong, saying he wished to “keep to the spirit” of the settlement agreement, refused to comment on the suggestion that Stewart would be a witness.
If Stewart is placed in the witness box and quizzed about his source, it takes the conflict between the newspaper and the OPI to a new venue, and a new level.
More on this story, and the aftermath of the settlement, in the Crikey email tomorrow.