Privacy Versus The Public's Right To Know: In Defence Of Freya Newman


Mark Twain once wrote, “It is better to keep your mouth closed and let people think you are a fool than to open it and remove all doubt.”

Those words were ringing in my ears on Monday when I read a piece on The Conversation headlined ‘Abbott, Spurr, Peris: are we ready to use the internet unsupervised?’

I should say at the outset, the author, Tim Scully, is clearly no fool. According to his bio, he’s a “former Army officer, public servant, consultant and PhD candidate” and an “advocate for better understanding among industry leaders of the cyber security threat”.

His piece take up some important public issues, and it’s central theme appears to be that, with the help of media, ‘whistleblowers’ (and that’s Scully’s use of single quotes, not mine) have been acting as judge, jury and executioner in the cases of Frances Abbott, Barry Spurr and Nova Peris.

Obviously, I disagree. Strongly. But I’ll get to that, because in Scully’s defence, he does make some very valid points, in particular this one: “In our ‘real’ lives of physical, face-to-face engagement with other people, we are conditioned by long-held societal norms and values to behave with politeness and mutual respect, at least on initial contact. Online we seem to smash our moral compasses, put on our ugly faces and trammel the dignity and rights of all and sundry. We morph into trolls, bullies, bigots, vigilantes and morons – and that is without adding alcohol or other stimulants.”

Amen, brother. Like many, I’ve learned the hard way that sometimes, we comment on social media before our filter is fully working. I’m a work in progress on that front.

But where Scully loses me – quite spectacularly – is with this: “It is not my intent to argue the moral case of these three, but to question whether trust has become a serious casualty of our umbilical connection to the internet.”

If it’s not Scully’s intent to argue morals, then how does he explain the repeated barbs and valued judgments that follow?

Like this: “Despite the claims of public interest, one trait that stands out about these ‘leaks’ is their vindictive motive.”

That’s a pretty big call, and one I suspect Mr Scully has absolutely no ability to back up, in no small part because I’m pretty sure he’s never met any of the ‘protagonists’ of whom he speaks.

Just to be safe, I looked up the term vindictive. It means “… having or showing a strong or unreasoning desire for revenge.”

In the case of Newman, Scully obviously has evidence that is not before the courts, and which contradicts that already put forward by police.

And there was this: “It seems the internet has become the tool of choice for the jealous and zealous to better engage in Australia’s most unfortunate cultural pursuit of felling tall poppies.”

And this: “Fortunately, I’m sure there are many people who would not choose Newman as their paladin charged with protecting our morals and virtues.”

That’s quite a lot of commenting on morals from someone who was not commenting on morals.

Scully then goes from valued judgments to the sort of leap that only a true conservative can make, confusing matters of clear public interest, with matters with which some sections of the public might be ‘interested in’.

“It was refreshing to see how American actress Jennifer Lawrence dealt with the recent theft and exposure of her online nude photos….”

Indeed it was. And so what is Scully’s point?

Is it that there’s a strong parallel between the hacking of nude celebrity photographs and whistleblowing about the daughter of the Australian Prime Minister receiving a secret scholarship not available to other students from a school which has lobbied the government for changes to higher education laws that will directly benefit them?

Or is it that there’s a parallel between Lawrence and the release of University of Sydney email correspondence, which attacks a rape victim and rails against Aboriginal people (and just about every other ethnic minority) from a man appointed to review the National School Curriculum?

Move along people, no shades of grey to see here.

Scully’s piece also contains some delicious irony, although not intentionally. He praises Tim Berners-Lee, the father of the internet, as having created an “amazing cyber vehicle”. Indeed, Berners-Lee did exactly that. But he also happens to be an ardent supporter of the internet as a vehicle for exposing the truth.

Here’s a tweet Berners-Lee sent in January 2013 about Aaron Swartz, a young internet activist who took his own life after being pursued by the US government for the heinous crime of illegally accessing jstor, a site which seeks to keep academic knowledge – paid for predominantly by the public purse – from public view.

My other major objection to Scully’s piece is its general inaccuracy. In commenting on the Freya Newman matter, Scully appears to have made the unfortunate mistake of relying on the claims of the Whitehouse Institute of Design, and the reporting of The Australian, to inform his article.

“In Abbott’s case, it is clear that Newman illegally accessed a company’s IT network, exposing more than 500 other students' details, to find supposedly incriminating ‘evidence’ about her scholarship.”

Well, no. That’s not what happened. Had Scully been sitting in the Downing Centre Local Court on October 23, he would have learned – from the police prosecutor no less – that Newman did not access 500 other students’ records.

That dramatic claim was made by Whitehouse, and duly reported by The Australian. Neither party has ever bothered to correct it.

The public record shows Freya Newman accessed one student record – Frances Abbott’s. As for whether or not it was ‘evidence’, as Scully sarcastically notes, it did show that Frances Abbott received a secret $60,636 scholarship. That’s not a criminal offence, but it’s certainly one the public has a right to know about.

Scully finishes by noting: “We need to think very carefully about whether or not we want to give unconditional licence to so-called whistleblowers and their media collaborators to become investigator, prosecutor, judge, jury and executioner.

Fair enough. There is plenty of important public debate to be had around balancing privacy against public interest. But it won’t be served by mean-spirited swipes at people Scully has never met, and knows even less about.

Scully correctly notes that the courts will hand down their decision on Freya Newman’s future next Tuesday.

Notwithstanding the fact that Scully has already sat as 'judge, jury and executioner' on Newman's apparent motivations,  I look forward to seeing him at the hearing this time. Because you just can’t beat ‘knowing the facts’ when weighing in on matters of important public interest.

* NOTE TO READERS: New Matilda is currently researching a story related to Senator Nova Peris, and her claims in parliament that she was the subject of a blackmail attempt. It is planned to run in the coming weeks.

New Matilda is independent journalism at its finest. The site has been publishing intelligent coverage of Australian and international politics, media and culture since 2004.