Election 2013 media panel

Electoral silence on digital rights from both politicians and journalists

Where is the election reporting on digital rights? Flickr: g4ll4is

Updated: Clarification of the main point about the lack of MSM reportage of digital rights; reference to Greens Senator Scott Ludlum’s leadership in the area; mention of the upcoming EFA Electoral Scorecard.

We’ve had #stopthenotes, #suppositories, and #sexappeal to keep us amused, but since the election campaign period began there has been very limited reporting in the mainstream media (MSM) of the electoral relevance of the digital rights issues faced by Australian citizens. While there is continued reported argument over who has the better NBN and how much it will cost and mobile telephone black spots, the reported electoral significance of three major digital rights issues largely not mentioned include:

(1) Australia’s role in mass surveillance–both its own desire for mandatory data retention and building a surveillance infrastructure and Telstra’s complicity in programs such as the NSA’s PRISM and X-Keyscore.

(2) Mandatory data breach notification - which almost happened on the last day of parliament’s sitting this year but was swept away by a combination of lack of political will and Kevin Rudd’s overthrow of Julia Gillard.

(3) Use of s313 of the Telecommunications Act to block hundreds of thousands of websites without oversight.

Certainly individual candidates have made pre-election news or blog posts about such issues. For example, Greens Senator Scott Ludlum has shown consistent leadership in speaking up against surveillance (1, 2, 3), privacy, and s313 blocking. Electronic Frontiers Australia will soon release an Electoral Scorecard that will allow Australians to compare and contrast most parties’ digital rights policies. However, the electoral reportage of digital rights is extremely limited.

It was reported that the Federal Attorney-General Mark Dreyfus’s has claimed that neither Edward Snowden nor Bradley Manning are technically “whistleblowers” because they did not reveal government wrongdoing, but this has not been treated as an electoral issue.

While in some ways this lack of focus on digital rights is a product of a lack of relevant announcements by political candidates, the lack of active reporting on these issues is also an indictment on the media given how much the digital rights issues raised by Edward Snowden, Bradley Manning, and Julian Assange cases completely dominated the news almost immediately prior to the election.

Media organisations have today reported on the finding that NSA breached US privacy rules, but not on the relevance of this in the Australian context. No reporters seem to asking questions about what this means in the light of Australia’s complicity in such surveillance.

Julian Assange’s statements have received the most attention so far, but those are largely treated as his bailiwick alone, with limited comparison to his stance compared to other candidates. For example, while the ABC has today updated its fact-check of Julian Assange’s claims about the Obama administration’s ‘war on whistelblowers’, this is treated as distinct from the election-cycle political reporting. In the fact check article he is introduced as a Senate candidate but no other reference is made to the election.

Apart from articles about Assange’s continued stance on whistleblowers, there are few other forms of articles. In an (admittedly non-exhaustive) search today I have found one on the Wikileaks party’s stance on indigenous issues, and a horserace-article onWikileaks preference deals, but little else.

The Greens, who have a wider agenda than technology but have always been strong on digital rights, have built digital rights into their NBN policy. The Pirate Party Australia, the other technology-oriented political party (than the Wikileaks party), is virtually absent from press coverage, despite a solid stream of press releases. If the other minor parties are making claims about digital rights, the mass media does not seem to be reporting them.

Arguably digital rights lack #sexappeal, the drama of #stopthevotes and #stop thenotes, and the humour of #suppositories, so they are harder to report. They are also not spending-related issues, which so often dominate the reporting of electoral announcements. But I believe that the lack of coverage also stems from a journalistic focus on the perpetual present, as Bernard Keane expresses it. As chronicled in The Rise of the Fifth Estate, it was just this focus of mainstream media (MSM) journalists reporting only on the day-to-day stump speech announcements and gaffes that lead to Greg Jericho’s critiques in 2010. His dogged insistence on deeper reporting and not forgetting today what one had learnt yesterday that so infuriated many in the MSM–especially News Limited–and lead to the infamous revelation of his identity by James Massola of The Australian.

I read the day-to-day reports, I enjoy gaffe reports, dumb as they areI even write them on occasion and have to answer for their apparent triviality. But as a citizen I also require the fourth (and fifth) estate to investigate all aspects of the election, both what is said and what is not. For me this means asking politicians the hard questions about digital rights. For others it will be different issues that seem to have been missed in the perpetual present.

What hard questions about absent issues do you think journalists be asking candidates?

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