Charges against three journalists from The Age — and likely a prominent Greens identity — for accessing a restricted Labor database have not only sounded the alarm for press freedom but fixed a firm gaze on the motivations of those who leaked the login details in the first place.
Ben Schneiders, Nick McKenzie and Royce Millar will front the Melbourne Magistrates’ Court next month. They face being sent to jail for two years a piece.
On November 23 in 2010, four days before the Victorian state election, The Age ran an above-the-fold front page story titled “Revealed: How the ALP keeps secret files on voters”, penned by McKenzie and Millar. Although hardly a ball-tearing scoop it did shine a light on some prurient personal detail recorded next to individual electors’ names.
Any journo worth their salt would have reported the story, but as Crikey‘s William Bowe noted at the time, the timing was indeed curious, coming in the final week of the campaign. And Labor’s Eleczilla and the Coalition’s Feedback databases had been extensively covered by Peter van Onselen and others years before. The knowledge that both major political parties had been collecting data under an exemption to the Privacy Act wasn’t exactly a secret.
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Now, following a parliamentary probe pushed by Liberal MP Bernie Finn and a botched 2011 raid on The Age‘s Media House HQ by Victoria Police’s “e-crime” unit, charges have been laid, drawing the condemnation of the journalists’ union and raising the ugly spectre of leading local hacks chalking up criminal records simply for doing their job.
The fourth defendant “facing charges” is former Melbourne and Moreland council Green Fraser Brindley. The involvement of Brindley has baffled those close to the case, who previously believed the leak flowed directly from Labor to The Age. The Greens released a statement this week distancing themselves from the allegations.
One angle missing from analysis of the case to date has been the poisonous debate inside Labor over campaign tactics at the time.
One theory goes that Labor Right identities unhappy about the flavour of the party’s strategy in the inner north — the broad divide between the strategy in Northcote and that of Richmond and Melbourne covered by Millar and Melissa Fyfe in the months before polling day — had decided to detonate a dirty bomb. On one view, the leak was seen as an 11th-hour suicide attack to exact retribution on the Socialist Left candidates by turning their seats Green, especially given large slabs of The Age‘s readership reside in the region.
The Age itself has strongly suggested the source — which neither journalist will ever name no matter the legal consequences — was embedded deep within the ALP. In July 2011, former Age editor Paul Ramadge said they were a “whistleblower who raised concerns about private information held on it”. Crucially, Ramadge stated “this whistleblower had authorised access to this material and we reported in the public interest” (emphasis added).
In December 2011, Ramadge gave a bit more detail: the journalists “were approached by someone with legitimate concerns about the content of that database … That source provided authorised access to the database.”
An alternative theory is that a generic Eleczilla username and password was widely scrawled on call-centre whiteboards at campaign centres set-up at Labor-friendly law firms like Maurice Blackburn and affiliated unions like United Voice. It wouldn’t have taken much for an aggrieved member to spirit the username and password away — perhaps via a middle-man — into The Age‘s mitts. The database could then be accessed through any internet browser.
But if the critics are somehow right and The Age was guilty of propagating a cynical bombshell designed to hurt the Left’s electoral prospects, then News Limited went completely over the top in its reaction — inventing something called “The Age hacking scandal” which rolled out in the pages of The Australian and, in one hysterical overreach, a double-page spread in the Sunday Herald Sun. (Commendably, The Oz‘s media diarist Nick Leys decided to take a more friendly press-freedom slant on Monday.)
As Jonathan Holmes wrote back in 2011 — following on from Crikey‘s take on the matter — most of News’ reporting was almost certainly motivated less by a real concern for the privacy breach and more by payback over Fairfax’s run of stories on the UK phone hacking debacle in the intervening 12 months.
Now, that momentum from a company that purports to champion the “Right to Know” has arguably snowballed the laying of serious police charges against fellow hacks, that News would probably poach in a heartbeat.
“You’d think they’d be out chasing real criminals,” one source familiar with the case told Crikey this morning.