COMMENT: Yesterday, The Weekend Australian published a story written by media editor Sharri Markson suggesting that myself and New Matilda Contributing Editor Wendy Bacon engaged in email hacking in the story associated with University of Sydney Professor Barry Spurr, and his racist, misogynistic statements regarding Aboriginal people, people of colour generally, and women.
At the risk of pointing out the bleeding obvious, what is noticeably absent from Professor Spurr’s statements to The Australian is an apology, or even a modicum of contrition. Given the content of Professor Spurr’s correspondence over several years, I don’t imagine this comes as a surprise to many.
Instead, Professor Spurr has expressed outrage that his privacy has been breached, and that it has been done so illegally.
One more time, for the record. The information technology policy of the University of Sydney – of which all staff are explicitly warned – is that their university emails are not private. It is a public institution.
Generally speaking, New Matilda does not comment on issues related to sources and leaked documents. However, Ms Markson’s story – and the allegations leveled within it – are demonstrably false, and the public record requires correction.
The first error is a suggestion that Professor Spurr’s email account was ‘hacked’. This is false. It did not occur. Neither New Matilda nor the source in the story hacked Professor Spurr’s account.
The second error relates to a suggestion in Ms Markson’s article that the source was motivated by “payback” for Professor Spurr’s involvement in the National School Curriculum review. This is also false.
While the source was broadly aware of Professor Spurr’s involvement in the review, the source was unaware of the contents of Professor Spurr’s submissions. What motivated the source to come forward was two specific email exchanges.
One of those exchanges relates to Professor Spurr’s views about a matter of substantial public importance. At this stage, New Matilda has decided not to divulge the contents of this email. The comments, however, are extreme and reinforced the view of the source that Professor Spurr’s involvement in the National Curriculum Review was a matter of substantial public interest.
The second email, which also reinforced this view related to Professor Spurr’s comments in relation to the sexual assault of a woman.
The email reads as follows (and some names and details have been redacted to protect the privacy of the victim of the assault).
TO: Barry Spur
FROM: (CLOSE FRIEND)
Goodness, what different times.
Today, (A COLLEAGUE) told me of a problem at (A COMPANY). Some harlot (A WOMAN) went back to a room party when her key would not work and waiting, went to sleep on the bed. Another (PERSON AT THAT COMPANY) put his penis in her mouth, as you do, and she called the police.
I told (MY COLLEAGUE) she was a worthless slut who will now cause this poor chap, who certainly did not adhere to Debretts, years of imprisonment with big black chaps because she is a worthless slut who should not have been there. In Dubai, she would be locked up as well. The muzzies are not all wrong about this.”
Professor Spurr replied to the email the following day.
Reeling from that story. Ye Gods. I think she needs a lot put in her mouth, permanently, and then stitched up.
Professor Spurr then casually discusses a proposed lunch date, before relating a story which mocks a transgender person.
These emails convinced the source that the public had a right to know the private views, and conduct, of a man charged with the responsibility of shaping the National School Curriculum.
Based on the information provided to us, New Matilda came to precisely the same conclusion. Professor Spurr’s private conduct was so extreme that it triggered a clear public interest.
New Matilda intends to release a transcript of some of the emails later today.
It has had to be heavily edited because of the risk of identifying numerous individuals – in the course of his correspondence, Professor Spurr breaches the privacy of a number of people, including a disabled student at the University of Sydney (the irony of Professor Spurr expressing outrage at a perceived invasion of his privacy is certainly not lost on me).
New Matilda also has other reasons for releasing the transcripts.
When we broke this story, we were mindful that our coverage should not be ‘gratuitous’ – that we should report the emails in brief, and then try and focus debate on the broader issues, namely the National School Curriculum, and the public response to Professor Spurr’s conduct.
However, our relatively scant quoting of Professor Spurr’s correspondence has enabled him to mount a fiction that New Matilda’s reporting has been out of context.
Professor Spurr still maintains that his correspondence was a “whimsical linguistic game” – a bit of blokey one-upmanship between him and an old friend. While a small number of emails could be considered ‘banter’, as Professor Spurr suggests, the transcript reveals that the majority of emails cannot reasonably be considered in that light.
We are releasing the transcript, in part, to enable members of the public to make up their own minds.
Professor Spurr has also maintained that his correspondence was primarily limited to a single individual – a close friend. This is also incorrect, as the transcript will show.
New Matilda has also been repeatedly asked to divulge the names of third parties associated with Professor Spurr’s correspondence.
To date, we have sought to restrict our reporting to the conduct of Professor Spurr because he is the only person in the email threads who holds a position of national influence. Notwithstanding this, some of the third parties involved also hold influential and important positions, including within the tertiary sector.
There is a powerful public interest argument to be made that their conduct should also be exposed, given their roles in caring for and educating our nation’s youth.
New Matilda is certainly sympathetic to that argument, however we are currently seeking further advice.
In relation to the reporting of this issue by The Australian, it’s notable that the nation’s only daily newspaper has sought to ‘shoot the messenger’, and provide a modicum of defence for Professor Spurr.
This is the second time in as many months that The Australian has given prominence to smears that myself and Wendy Bacon are ‘hackers’.
It’s been a relatively successful smear, as conservative trolling on social media will show – Wendy and I have both had our reporting repeatedly likened to the phone hacking scandal perpetrated by The Australian’s parent company in the United Kingdom.
The crucial facts of the phone hacking scandal in the United Kingdom appears to be lost on some. It involved editors and journalists paying individuals to hack into the phones of celebrities in the hunt for worthless gossip and pap – information that some sections of the public was ‘interested in’, as opposed to information ‘in the public interest’.
It is patently obvious that the story about Professor Spurr, and the story about a secret $60,000 scholarship awarded by the Whitehouse Institute to the Prime Minister’s daughter, Frances Abbott – over which The Australian has also suggested New Matilda engaged in hacking – bear no resemblance whatsoever to the UK phone hacking scandal.
In both stories, New Matilda did not engage in any hacking. In both stories, we reported material that had been presented to us. This is otherwise known as ‘journalism’.
The irony of this latest smear from The Australian coming just a few days after Ms Markson went ‘undercover’ to write a series of features which allege left wing bias among Sydney university lecturers, is certainly not lost on me, and many others.
Nor is the irony that Ms Markson missed the real story at the University of Sydney. New Matilda is more than happy to allow the public to summate both styles of reporting, and decide which is journalism and which is ideology parading as journalism.
Finally, on the issue of public interest, New Matilda acknowledges that there is legitimate public debate to be had about Professor Spurr’s right to privacy.
From our perspective, we argue that given his role in reviewing the National School Curriculum, and his capacity to influence what will be taught to every child in every school in every state of Australia, the release of Professor Spurr’s emails more than passed the public interest test. It was, to put it simply, a no brainer.
Like all people in the public eye, and people in positions of power, Professor Spurr, we argue, is entitled to ‘less privacy’ than the average citizen. This is because accountability of those in positions of power and influence is a crucial part of our democratic process. It’s worth noting where those who rail against this reside in the power structures of our nation.
‘Public versus private’ is an important debate. New Matilda commits to engaging in it, as all media should. But that debate should not distract from the real issue.
Fundamentally, Professor Spurr’s public fall from grace is a story about Australian values.
When racism rears its ugly head in public – on buses and trains – many of us are quick to condemn it. This is, of course, appropriate. But those incidents are merely the public face of racism. The private face is much more slippery.
The fact is, as a nation, we’ve been far less willing to confront our racism, our sexism, our Islamophobia, and our homophobia in the places where it matters most, and does the most damage – our institutions and our halls of power.
By way of example, people of colour, and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in particular, have long argued that Australian racism is about much, much more than just mugs who snap on public transport.
They argue, consistently, that racism pervades at the highest levels of Australian society, and that this racism is institutionally-based. When they mount these arguments, they are shouted down.
Australian Governments have long denied institutional racism even exists. So journalists with access to the Prime Minister might consider asking him if he believes it does, and if he believes that some of the people from whom Mr Abbott’s government seeks advice are the perpetrators of it.
And that’s the real power of this story. Professor Spurr is the smoking gun of institutional racism and misogyny. Thus, our most urgent public attention must turn to cleansing the National School Curriculum review of the toxicity of this man’s views.
Anything less, is a tacit endorsement of them.
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