Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Making Arrests Is More Important Than Making Headlines

Yesterday’s startling news of a thwarted (alleged) terrorist plot to stage an assault on Holsworthy army barracks has thrown up a broad range of big questions. The initial reaction of shock at the idea that such a thing could be contemplated, was followed by admiration for the investigating agencies and their officers, which in turn gave way to disbelief that it is apparently possible for pretty much anyone to just wander into a major military facility and wander around. Now, an equally alarming concern has arisen with the revelation that what was initially seen as a great journalistic scoop was in fact a massive breach of security.

It appears that the early edition of the Australian, the newspaper which broke the story, was literally on the streets of Melbourne hours before the raids actually occurred. According to Simon Overland, the Victorian Police Commissioner, a law enforcement officer actually purchased a copy of the paper, with its sensational front page headline, at 1.30am. Presumably, dozens of delivery drivers were carting bundles of the paper around even earlier than that. It was delivered to the Australian Federal Police headquarters by 2.00am, and Commissioner Overland’s own operations centre had the paper at 3.00am.

Now, it is obviously good journalism to get the story first. It is also good journalism to have confidential sources who can provide accurate information. It is good journalism to have a sound relationship with the authorities, especially the police, in which a healthy level of trust exists. But it is equally obvious that publishing sensitive information prematurely can potentially have devastating consequences. In a situation such as this, with a police operation against suspected violent terrorists in progress, it can cost lives.

The Australian insists that the early edition of the paper was held back for exactly that reason. They claim that the paper was not available at 1.30am, but that it was only released when safe to do so. But the evidence described by Commissioner Overland seems to indicate otherwise. It would seem that somehow, somewhere, something went wrong with the timetable and the newspaper got out well before it should have.

From the point of view of the Police Commissioner of course, the question is from where did the Australian get their information in the first place? His concern is that a police officer may have been responsible for the leak. If so, it constitutes an illegal act which carries a jail term, and represents a tremendous embarrassment in the course of what has otherwise been a very successful operation. It highlights the pitfalls of any relationship between police and the media which might become too cosy. While it is obvious what the benefit is for the media outlet in such a relationship, the benefit for the police is more dubious, and the potential risk is obvious.

That’s why any media outlet which enjoys a relationship of trust must recognize that making arrests is more important than making headlines. At the same time, you have to wonder why any police officer would take such a risk.

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