One should always be suspicious when politicians of differing parties stand together to criticise the media. One should be doubly suspicious when it’s in relation to something to do with political parties.
Yesterday the Victorian Parliamentary Electoral Matters Committee, chaired by Liberal MP Bernie Finn, handed in its report on the 2010 election. In doing so, it launched an attack on The Age over that newspaper’s investigation of Labor’s Electrac voter database. The committee’s views are worth noting at length:
8.38 The Committee remains concerned about allegations The Age newspaper improperly accessed the ALP’s databases prior to the 2010 Victorian state election. Regardless of how this information was obtained, the Committee supports the right of Members of Parliament and political parties to maintain secure databases containing information and details about electors. This information assists Members and political parties to better serve the needs of their constituents.
8.39 As noted earlier, the Committee has sought The Age’s cooperation in matters relating to the allegations of improper access to the ALP’s electoral database.
8.40 The Committee considers The Age’s correspondence on Friday, 9 December 2011 and decision not to cooperate with the Committee’s requests for assistance with this matter offensive. Indeed Mr Ramadge’s comments show little regard for the Committee’s most fundamental concern in this matter; that an influential organisation allegedly accessed a database containing private information about Victorians for reasons it will not disclose. The Committee believes this is a serious matter with implications for the integrity of Victoria’s electoral process.
The voter databases held by the major political parties are one of the greatest ongoing assaults on privacy in Australia. They combine information accumulated by government via the Australian Electoral Commission, publicly available data about individuals and material collated by parties themselves from contacts people might have with MPs or their staff. If you approach your MP about a problem, or your write to them, everything you tell them gets added to the database. Write a letter to a newspaper, post something online under your own name, it may well be added as well. The Age piece revealed some of this extraordinary information being held by the ALP.
There is no scrutiny or accountability for these databases (“Feedback” is the name of the Liberal database). The major parties ensured that their databases were excluded from the operation of the Privacy Act. You can’t ask to be removed from the database or have faulty information corrected. They don’t have to ask you permission to use information about you. The Do Not Call register doesn’t apply to political parties. In fact you can’t even check what information the party has gathered about you.
The claim that these databases are to enable parties to better serve their constituents may well be partly true. But the primary goal is to help tailor election campaigns and focus spending and doorknocking to best effect. They are designed to enable the parties to better target ways to make you vote for them.
The Age story, based on access to the database provided by an ALP official who was authorised to access it, was an excellent effort to unmask this ongoing assault on privacy. We need more of our mainstream media alerting voters to how they are being tracked and monitored by self-interested, powerful organisations like political parties. And The Age was correct to refuse to “co-operate” with the committee. It has already been raided by the Victorian Police in relation to the matter.
The committee finding is nothing but the self-interest of the major parties dressing itself up in feigned concern for voters. There is indeed a “right of Members of Parliament and political parties to maintain secure databases containing information and details about electors”, but it should not be excluded from the basic privacy provisions that apply to companies engaged in the equally self-interested goal of flogging things to people.
That’s not the worst of it, however. News Limited’s papers — mainly the Herald Sun and The Australian, but even Sydney’s Daily Telegraph — have persistently attacked The Age over the story and labelled it “hacking”. The rationale is obvious: desperate to distract from the ongoing revelations about News International’s industrial-scale assault on decency in the UK, News Ltd journalists have repeatedly tried to suggest there’s some sort of equivalence between The Age’s actions (or the “Fairfax hacking crisis”, as The Telegraph termed it), and what the News of the World and The Times were up to.
A more generous explanation is that people such as The Australian’s media reporter Nick Leys call it “hacking” because, you know, there’s a computer involved, right? This is after all the company that recently boasted it was establishing a new system that would enable the amazing feat of feeding tweets onto journalists’ computer screens.
News Ltd normally insists that it is all about holding the powerful to account, but in this case the leader of the “Right To Know” coalition doesn’t think the public had any right to know what information the major parties are hiding about us. It’s been a particularly shabby moment from the company, to the extent of seeming to gloat over police raiding a rival media company.
Instead of blandly asserting the rights of politicians to profile and monitor voters, the Victorian parliamentary committee should be explaining to them exactly why political parties are exempt from even the most basic accountability about their databases. What’s offensive is politicians standing shoulder to shoulder across party lines to prevent their systematic breaching of voters’ privacy from being scrutinised.
The Age has done us a valuable service in providing some scrutiny and all the police raids, outraged committee reports and News Ltd sniping in the world won’t change it.