The Power of Attorney - another reader's contribution
Former Western Australia Corruption Commissioner - Terry O'Connor QC - Gillard could have been charged

An insight into Australia's top awards for journalism

Margaret Simons used judging role to discredit Operation Neath scoop

  • by: Nick Leys and John Ferguson
  • From:The Australian
  • December 19, 201212:00AM


  • JOURNALISM academic Margaret Simons argued with fellow judges on a Walkley Award panel over the merits of a report in The Australian and claimed "miscalculations" by the newspaper's editors ruled it not worthy of consideration.
Dr Simons was a judge in the 2009 Walkley Awards for Excellence in Journalism for the Print News Report category alongside News Limited editor David Penberthy and Seven Freedom of Information editor Michael McKinnon.

Dr Simons, director of the Centre for Advanced Journalism in Melbourne, reportedly acknowledged at the time the merit of Cameron Stewart's story, which revealed a plot by Islamic extremists in Melbourne to launch a suicide attack on an army base, and even its public interest value.

This was in sharp contrast to her public comments since that the report had no news value and had no public interest given raids on suspects in the plot would have been made public soon after The Australian reported them.

Dr Simons, a strident critic of News Limited, The Australian and Stewart's reporting of the Operation Neath anti-terror raids, argued with her fellow judges about the inclusion of Stewart's report in the finalists' list.

She claimed that, despite the story's public interest, The Australian's editors had made errors and miscalculations in their handling of the negotiations with the AFP over the newspaper's reporting of Operation Neath, which made the entry ineligible.

Sources have told The Australian that Simons instead wanted to release a statement from the judges recognising Stewart's work but condemning his editors. The argument with Penberthy and McKinnon resulted in a call to a Media Entertainment and Arts Alliance official, Mary Cotter, for resolution.

Dr Simons has not responded to questions about the claims.

Penberthy and McKinnon have refused to comment on the basis all Walkley judging panels operate on a confidential basis, but Penberthy said of his own involvement "it was three hours of my life I won't get back".

A spokesman for the MEAA, which runs the Walkley Awards, Australian journalism's peak prize, said Ms Cotter would not comment on judging matters but had "no recollection" of the argument or Dr Simons's attempts to issue such a statement.

The award was won by another journalist from The Australian, Gary Hughes, for his reporting of the Black Saturday bushfires. Stewart was a finalist for the Scoop of the Year category for his Operation Neath reporting and in the same year won the Melbourne Press Club Gold Quill Award for the report as well as the Grant Hattam Award for Investigative Journalism.

At the time MEAA national secretary Chris Warren said of the report: "The Australian handled that quite responsibly, they got the balance right between respecting the operational needs of the security services with the public's right to know."

Revelations of Dr Simons's bid to rule out Stewart's report from Walkleys consideration came as the University of Melbourne said that concerns about Dr Simons's work should be addressed by the Australian Press Council or her publisher, internet site Crikey.

Dr Simons yesterday refused to answer a series of questions from The Australian about her coverage of the Operation Neath controversy.

Dr Simons has denied she was factually inaccurate during her frequent attacks on The Australian and Stewart over his report on Operation Neath.

The newspaper has accused Dr Simons of serious, verifiable, factual errors during the coverage of the long-running controversy.

The university has refused to investigate whether Dr Simons erred, in part because it said the contentious reporting occurred before Dr Simons had taken over the journalism centre's work.

University spokesman John DuBois said: "Even if it did not, concerns about the accuracy of material published is best taken up with the journal in question or the press council.

"The director of a centre for advanced journalism should be able to argue in public about the quality of media reporting in this country.

"Academic freedom is the right to speak in areas of the academic's expertise, and Professor Simons is doing so. The Australian is free at any time to disagree with her conclusions."

Dr Simons claimed in May 2010 that the Office of Police Integrity had been critical of Stewart in one of its reports. She also claimed that Stewart had told his legal team that publication of that report would be likely to cause him "reputational loss".

The Australian has reported that the court documents do not state this.

Victoria Police Detective Senior Constable Simon Artz last week pleaded guilty to a breach of police regulations for making an unauthorised disclosure to Stewart in the lead-up to the report being published.

Mr Artz, 43, signed a deed of release clearing Stewart and the newspaper of any professional and ethical obligations after coming under investigation. Mr Artz was not the primary source for the Stewart expose.

The AFP provided Stewart with information on the raids after the newspaper agreed to hold off publication to prevent sabotaging the investigation. The story was approved by the AFP before it ran.

Some early copies of the story were distributed in Melbourne before the raids. The Australian Commission for Law Enforcement Integrity found that the early publication of the story was accidental.

Writing on the Crikey website yesterday, Dr Simons said: "For the record, the allegations of inaccuracy made against me are untrue."