We’ve been treated to some contrasting views on privacy in recent days. Recently, the now-departed secretary of the Attorney-General’s Department, Roger Wilkins, declared that in effect the traditional concept of privacy was dead and we should just get used to it. Such contempt for privacy was not unexpected from a man who did more than most in the federal bureaucracy to damage the cause of personal privacy and promote the cause of mass surveillance.
And last week, the Australian Law Reform Commission recommended a statutory tort for serious invasions of digital privacy, with the protection of a public interest test to ensure that it couldn’t be used to prevent legitimate media scrutiny of individuals.
The ALRC, of course, has previously recommended a broader privacy tort, which the previous government flirted with momentarily . The idea, however, is anathema to most of the Australian media, which arrogates to itself the right to determine whose privacy can be invaded and the circumstances in which it is invaded. If this was part of a bold defence of legitimate media scrutiny of the powerful and vested interests, it might be acceptable, but in practice it is mostly part of a defence against facile celebrity media coverage and a tendency to value the privacy of ordinary individuals at a far lower level than that of powerful, wealthy and litigious figures. It’s also anathema to political parties, which, we should not forget, are exempt from privacy laws and have assembled vast databases on every voter in the country.
The ALRC’s recommendations are eminently sensible, and there is no legitimate justification for not adopting them. But the grim reality is no government will seriously consider them. The rich and the powerful can already defend their privacy. The rest of us will just have to fend for ourselves.