Culture

Junk Explained: Freya Newman And Why We Need Whistleblowers

What's worse: doing dodgy stuff, or exposing it?

You may remember that time earlier this year, just days after Tony Abbott’s government shirt-fronted the dreams of myriad would-be university students who don’t come from families with money and connections, when Abbott’s daughter Frances was outed as the recipient of a design degree delivered to her, gratis, on a silver spoon.

New Matilda broke the story after obtaining documents that showed Ms Abbott had paid just over $7,000 to attend Whitehouse Institute of Design and complete a $68,000 bachelor degree, as part of a suspicious-smelling “scholarship” arrangement bearing a closer resemblance to wads of cash in a brown paper bag than any scholarship I’ve ever tried to apply for.

Abbott did not declare this trifling $60,000 matter on this pecuniary interests register, he claims, because Frances won it “on merit” (kind of like all of the men in his cabinet?). But New Matilda’s information kind of suggested otherwise. The scholarship was not advertised to any other potential students, had no rigorous application process (Frances Abbott was offered it after a single interview), and its existence was kept secret from students and even senior staff.

That information, together with the claims from students, teachers and insiders that Frances Abbott was an “average” student, that others in her class were both more needy and more deserving, that the only other recipient of such a scholarship in Whitehouse’s 25 year history was the founder’s daughter, and that the folk at Whitehouse are regular Liberal Party donors, and things began to look fishy. Add to that the tense post-budget climate and swirling NSW Liberals political donations scandal, and it’s no surprise that the revelations pissed a lot of people off.

Since then, though, the revelations themselves have been overshadowed by the prosecution of the person who brought them to light. As she turned up to court to await sentencing yesterday, the question of how we can protect those who break the law to come forward with privileged information is one that deserves to be more closely examined.

Who is Freya Newman and what did she do?

The modern-day Nancy Drew who helped New Matilda access this information was 21-year-old UTS communications student Freya Newman. Newman was working as a part-time librarian at Whitehouse when she used another staff member’s login to access the secret information that was passed on to New Matilda. She then quit her job — but that wasn’t the end of it.

The police got involved — not to investigate the alleged fraudulent dealings, of course, but to go after the whistleblower for accessing the information illegally. CCTV footage captured Newman accessing the computer at the same time the system was accessed. She was charged in August with unauthorised access to a computer, and pleaded guilty.

Yesterday, Newman attended a sentencing hearing along with hordes of supporters, and the sentencing was delayed for another month. She faces up to two years jail for the offence, although few believe the judge will be that severe — it remains to be seen whether a conviction will even be recorded. But police are pushing for Newman to be made an “example of”, maybe because they’re embarrassed about having an amateur sleuth show them up.

Is Freya Newman really a whistleblower?

The term “whistleblower” was coined in the 1970s by consumer advocate Ralph Nader in an effort to give greater respect to those who take risks to inform the public of wrongdoing — as opposed to calling them informers, traitors, rats, squealers, snitches, or even criminals. So what sets whistleblowing apart from those other nasty words?

Whistleblowers Australia defines whistleblowing in pretty broad terms, but it can be summed up as a disclosure of information in the public interest, or by a person who is motivated by notions of public interest.

While most of us these days agree that blowing the whistle on corruption is a pretty virtuous act and a good thing for democracy, the practicalities of exposing truth when systems are geared towards privacy and confidentiality means doing so is fraught with ethical and often legal dilemmas.

Whether or not you agree that Newman’s whistleblowing exposed something important, or whether you think her admittedly illicit means were justified by the end, the documents she found did raise significant questions about the legitimacy of dealings between the Whitehouse Institute and the Abbott family. Leaving aside the delicious irony of a wealthy soon-to-be Prime Minister getting his daughter a free education only to push for budget measures that place university out of reach for less privileged kids, accepting a secret $60,000 gift from an interested organisation is illegal — and the evidence Newman found was enough to convince plenty of people that the scholarship was a political donation in disguise.

Blowing the whistle frequently means transgressing ethical, professional and legal boundaries. When whistleblowing means gaining unauthorised access to confidential information, it necessarily involves doing things that are a bit legally shady. So when does the end justify the means, and when does it not? Generally people in authority decide that after the fact, which isn’t terribly comforting to whistleblowers who feel they’ve got something important to expose about people in positions of authority.

Don’t whistleblowers get some sort of ‘public interest’ immunity?

Under some circumstances, yes. Valuing democracy means valuing transparency and understanding that when power meets privacy, corruption is an ever-present, festering temptation. Those in power in a democracy are accountable to the public, which is why the public has a right to know what they’re up to. Theoretically, anyway.

Because whistleblowing is accepted by most as a plus for democracy, we have some measures in place to protect people who are acting in the public interest. But the law is very confusing and riddled with loopholes — the biggest of which, according to Julian Burnside, basically covers the whole private sector. Writing in the Guardian, Burnside said if Newman had made “an equivalent revelation from public sector records” she probably would have avoided prosecution.

There are some protections in place for whistleblowers under the Corporations Act, but the rules are so stringent they might as well not exist. To be eligible for any kind of protection, people blowing the whistle on corporate misconduct can’t do it anonymously, they must be working in the company they’re reporting on, the allegation has to be specifically about a potential breach of the Corporations Act or the ASIC Act, and the protections don’t cover going public with the information. You can report misconduct to your bosses or to ASIC, that’s it. There’s no public interest protection for people who leak to journalists.

A recent report from Melbourne and Griffith Universities found Australia lags a long way behind other G20 countries in our protection of whistleblowers, and the biggest area in need of improvement is the private sector. Surely if we accept that private organisations wield significant power within our democracy, they too should be as accountable to the public as our elected officials.

What are the implications of all this?

Put bluntly, without stronger protection for whistleblowers and journalists we are giving a big fat tick to corrupt behaviour by governments and businesses, muzzling the public discourse and scrutiny that makes a democracy a democracy and not some other tyrannical system of rule. Of course, Tony Abbott’s government (together with their bi-partisan buddies) seem pretty cool with taking us in that direction. We’re looking down the barrell of a future in which journalists, whistleblowers and citizens of a purported “democracy” can be jailed for 10 years for having a conversation about what our government is doing.

Freya Newman wasn’t the only New Matilda associate in court yesterday for putting the public interest ahead of an organisation or powerful individual’s privacy. The news site also stands accused of breaching the privacy of Barry “Abos, Mussies, Women, Chinky-Poos” Spurr, the racist professor and National School Curriculum consultant who would like schools to place less emphasis on Aboriginal culture. But as Jonathan Holmes explains, journalists who don’t physically do the hacking themselves can use the public interest defence for publishing leaked information (except if it has anything to do with national security now, yay).

One of the most annoying things about a story like Freya Newman’s is that in the absence of legal protection as a whistleblower, we end up debating her actions rather than the ones she has exposed. Pursuing whistleblowers as criminals is a neat way for authorities to get us to stop thinking about the corruption they’ve exposed, even though the method by which information is uncovered — legal or otherwise — doesn’t change the content of the information itself. If Freya Newman ends up with a criminal record, it doesn’t change the fact that Tony Abbott’s daughter was secretly given a $60,000 free ride by an organisation with a vested interest in the government’s education policy. So regardless of the outcome next month, let’s make sure we keep talking about that.

Jenny writes from Sydney’s inner-east, sipping a flat white in between swearing about politics, feminism, pop culture and other stuff. Send her compliments@jennynoise.

Feature image by Lisa Maree Williams/Getty Images.