Illustration: Ron Tandberg.
ONE of Rupert Murdoch's most senior editors in Australia asked a top federal policeman how many people could be killed if his newspaper published details about an impending anti-terrorism raid in Melbourne, the officer says.
Australian Federal Police Commissioner Tony Negus said he found the question, from Paul Whittaker, the then editor of The Australian, ''reprehensible''. Mr Whittaker is now editor of The Daily Telegraph in Sydney.
Mr Negus told a court yesterday that he told Mr Whittaker that if The Australian published its planned story, the targets of its operation, believed to have links to Somali terrorist group al-Shabab, could ''go to the nearest shopping centre and decide to take action''.
A statement tendered to the Melbourne Magistrates Court yesterday details the conversation according to Mr Negus.
Mr Negus: ''Look, I am formally requesting you from the AFP, Victoria Police and ASIO not to go ahead with this story. People's lives are at risk if you publish this story tomorrow.''
Mr Whittaker: ''Well, how many lives are at risk?''
Mr Negus: ''Well, if these people are aware of police interest, they may well not go for their intended site … Publishing the article will put public safety at risk!''
Mr Whittaker: ''Well, what are we talking about? One person being killed, or … a number of people being killed?''
Mr Negus: ''You do not have the entire story and The Australian's intended publication … has far more serious consequences. There are domestic aspects to this investigation, which involved planned attacks on a military base.''
The AFP then offered The Australian's reporter, Cameron Stewart, a briefing about its operation, which gave him information he was not aware of. The AFP and The Australian then agreed to hold publication of the story over until the AFP raided several homes in Melbourne days later.
Five men were subsequently charged with plotting a terrorist act at a Sydney army base. Three are awaiting sentence after a Supreme Court trial last year. Two co-accused were acquitted.
The conversation was led as evidence yesterday against Victoria Police officer Simon Justin Artz, who is accused of leaking information to Stewart about the operation.
Stewart's original article was to be about Somali Australians travelling to Somalia to fight, and the Somali community financing terrorism.
Both of these matters, the AFP believed, were directly relevant to its investigation into the Sydney plot, which is why it wanted publication delayed.
The Age successfully challenged the AFP's request to have the conversation suppressed when Artz's committal hearing began yesterday. Mr Negus told the Melbourne Magistrates Court yesterday that learning of the leak was ''devastating''.
He told prosecutor Nick Papas, SC: ''For us to be compromised like that … all of us were devastated.''
The operation's senior investigating officer told the court he found the leak ''gut-wrenching'' because of the work that many officers had put into the case.
''[These people] were going to machinegun people to death,'' Detective Superintendent Damien Appleby said. ''[It was] quite a significant and serious plot.''
Lawyers for the AFP sought to have details of Mr Negus's conversation with Mr Whittaker suppressed but failed.
Mr Negus said the force's relationship with The Australian before the leak was ''not a very good one'' - it was ''the poorest relationship we've had with any newspaper across the country''.
Cross-examined by Artz's counsel, Bill Stuart, Mr Negus denied The Australian had blackmailed him.
He said he and Mr Whittaker had negotiated a process, and ''what was being asked of us was reasonable in the circumstances''.
News Limited journalists yesterday distributed statements from Mr Whittaker and The Australian's editor-in-chief, Chris Mitchell, to other reporters covering the case.
Responding to questions from The Age, Mr Whittaker said Mr Negus's recollection of the conversation was ''significantly different to mine''.
''It is ridiculous and offensive to suggest there may have been a number of deaths that I or the newspaper might have been prepared to risk by publishing the story,'' he said.
''The questions I asked of Mr Negus, which are different from those contained in his statement, were consistent with normal journalistic rigour.''
The hearing before magistrate Peter Mealy continues and is scheduled to take four weeks.