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The Age raid: where do journalists draw the line?

The Age could find itself at the centre of a test case for a brand new law. AAP/Elaine To

Victoria Police e-crime squad members yesterday raided the offices of The Age newspaper as part of their ongoing investigation into allegations that reporters from the paper illegally hacked into an ALP database.

Officers attempted to seize the computer of investigative reporter Nick McKenzie, but The Age obtained an emergency injunction blocking the removal of the equipment.

Police interest in the matter stems from a story published during the 2010 Victorian election campaign demonstrating the high level of personal detail kept on individuals by ALP on its voter management database.

The Conversation spoke with Associate Professor Martin Hirst about journalism, the law and what constitutes public interest.

The original story in The Age revealed how the Victorian ALP collected and used data on constituents. Was this in the public interest?

I guess every story in politics is in the public interest, and this certainly was a politically interesting story, but having reread it, it seems to me that it was merely a one-off, a front page splash for The Age, and an exclusive for them, so it was good for them, but in the scheme of things I don’t think anyone would be surprised that political parties, or indeed any organisation, is keeping files on them.

Has the significance of this story been overblown?

I think the significance of the original story has been overblown. It’s been kept alive very well over the past several months by the Herald Sun and by The Australian and I think they’ve done a very good job of keeping it alive in the public mind. They’ve related it very much to the British phone-hacking story and used it as a bit of a spoiler to deflect from the heat from that. It’s on a different scale,though. The News of the World events are much more significant.

How did the article lead to a police raid on the paper?

Well it seems there’s a bit of a background here. After the Herald Sun started sniffing around on this story, one of the people they spoke to was the Victorian Electoral Commissioner, who then complained to the police and asked the police to investigate whether any illegal activity had taken place. So it seems that’s where the original complaint was laid from, and the police are now just doing what they’re tasked with, which is to follow up on these types of of allegations.

Who do you see as being the victim in this crime?

It’s hard to say that anybody’s really a victim here. The Labor Party is obviously embarrassed because their secret polling and the existence of this database is now public information, so they’re a little bit embarrassed. The Age has been very careful not to release information they got from this database without checking with those people, so they haven’t really released any private information. I think to some extent it’s a victimless crime. There’s no victim I can see here.

The police have raided the office to establish whether journalists who accessed this database have broken any laws, in particular section 478 of the Commonwealth Criminal Code. If the journalists have broken this law, do you think it was a law they were entitled to break, and are journalists entitled to break the law in general?

The police have to establish through their investigation whether or not a law has been broken and I think if I was advising The Age journalists I’d be very cautious about what they say about this, and certainly I would argue that given that they got the password and the username from an ALP worker that they perhaps could argue that they were authorised.

But in the general sense of when it’s permissible to break laws, I think what has to happen in a a situation like that is that the public interest has to be set very, very high. I think the public interest test bar has to be incredibly high in a situation like this before you can actually say that journalists are allowed to break the law.

I think journalists often would like to think they’re above the law but they’re not. Journalists must abide by the laws of the land and for anybody to take the law into their own hands and argue that they have a right to break a particular law, you have to have a very good case, you have to have a very strong public interest argument that it’s desrirable to break the law. I don’t think the original public interest on this story was high enough to warrant breaking the law – if that’s what’s happened.

There is a shield law to allow journalists to protect sources, found in the Evidence Act. Should that shield law be applicable in this case?

It seems to me that the most interesting aspect of this case is in fact that that new section of the Evidence Act can be brought into bear here, and may be used as a defence. I don’t think this law has been used before – it was only passed into legislation earlier this year – so it has not yet been tested. Now having looked at section 126h of the Evidence Act, or the amendments to the act that were passed this year, it does make it quite clear that a journalist is within their rights to refuse to give up the name of a source if they have offered that source some form of identity protection, so in this case it could very well be used as a defence. It seems to me that we’re likely to see the first legal test of this if it does ever get to court.

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