Sources who allegedly leaked documents relating to Frances Abbott’s scholarship at the Whitehouse Institute of Design are being investigated by police, The Weekend Australian has revealed.

The investigation follows stories published in New Matilda and The Guardian that revealed details of the scholarship given to Tony Abbott’s daughter. The stories raised questions about whether the scholarship, which wasn’t openly advertised, had been given on merit. The story in The Weekend Australian claims that in pursuit of the scoop, the personal records of 500 Whitehouse students were hacked.

The claim is repeated in an email sent to Whitehouse students on Friday and obtained by Crikey, as shown below:

In it, Whitehouse founder and managing director Leanne Whitehouse informed students that their records had been accessed. “The incident occurred in late May and has been the subject on an on-going police investigation so we have not been in a position to comment until now,” Whitehouse told students. “The police have informed us that their investigations are nearing completion and that they believe an offence has been committed.”

As part of its reporting, The Weekend Australian named two Whitehouse Institute staffers whose emails it had obtained, whom it quotes as conspiring to leak Frances Abbott’s scholarship.

Speaking to Crikey this morning, both New Matilda editor Chris Graham and contributing editor Wendy Bacon declined to confirm whether The Weekend Australian had correctly named their sources. “We can’t say whether or not they outed our sources,” Graham said. “But I can say there’s a stark difference here. We seek to not assist police investigations, and apparently The Australian seeks to assist them.”

Bacon similarly defends New Matilda‘s reporting, saying it shed light on how the government’s public education policies would transfer millions of dollars to the private sector, which would benefit the institution that gave the Prime Minister’s daughter a scholarship. She adds that all journalists rely on leaks that come from confidential emails, which are then reported on if they are in the public interest.

She says she was asked questions by The Weekend Australian about her contact with the sources of the story, but declined to answer those, though she did respond to other questions. “Ask any other journalists whether they’d go into their discussions with confidential sources — of course they wouldn’t,” she said.

The Weekend Australian’s report was illustrated with a photo of Bacon and depicts her as a central part of the story. But she says she only had a contributing reporting credit, and that most of the credit for the investigation should go to Graham and New Matilda staffer Max Chalmers. “It was New Matilda’s story — they pursued it, and they should get the credit for it.”

In a response posted on New Matilda this morning, Graham says the claim that 500 students were hacked is false. “How do I know? Well, I’d love to tell you, but at this stage, I have no intention of weighing into a police investigation, nor of providing information which may assist it.”

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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