Privacy hooliganism: Alan Jones, the NSW police and the 'secret soccer shame file'

Last week, an odd tale emerged from the world of soccer of a government agency potentially breaching privacy law. The case has embroiled two NSW public sector agencies as well as the sport's governing body, Football Federation Australia, and prompted talk of a lawsuit against The Sunday Telegraph. Our main interest, however, is with the bizarre reactions to this breach from some officials at the agencies involved.

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To recap for readers who aren't obsessive A-League fans (of whom there may be a handful), the Telegraph reported details of "secret police files" containing photographs of 198 "soccer louts" banned from attending games. It published some of the individuals' names, photos and alleged misconduct, as well as comments from NSW police chief Andrew Scipione and assistant commissioner Kyle Stewart, who condemned what they called a violent culture among the sport's fans. Which would have been fair enough – if their criticism was limited to actual offenders.

Yet the stolen/leaked document did not solely list offenders; indeed, very few of those named have been charged with any offence, let alone found guilty. Some of those named say they were accused wrongly because they were mistaken for other people. At least one fan, Julian Cumbo, who was banned from attending games when he was 16, lost his job last week after the article was published. He told SBS: "My employer said to me 'we can't have someone representing our company, dealing with customers on a regular basis who is portrayed in the media as a hooligan'."

On one level, this is a simple case of defamation against those who were not guilty of whatever the FFA had accused them of doing. The newspaper has since deleted the fans' names and photos from its website. However, lawyers are circling and News Limited, which publishes the Telegraph, will need to prove what the police couldn't – or be forced to reach deep into its pockets.

Yet what of the other organisations involved? Cumbo, for example, has never been charged with any offence. Like many on the list, he tried to appeal against his ban. However, the FFA told him he couldn't, saying that, because the FFA wasn't a government agency, "the obligation to adhere to the rules of procedural fairness and natural justice does not apply to our organisation".


The FFA is, however, subject to the national privacy principles. Australian Information Commissioner Timothy Pilgrim has now asked any fans who are concerned about how their personal details were used to contact his office. He told the Informant he is also writing to the FFA "to seek further information regarding this matter and their personal information handling practices".

Then there are two other custodians of the confidential list of banned fans: the NSW Police Force and the Sydney Cricket Ground Trust (which operates the home ground of A-League club Sydney FC). Both are NSW government agencies and hence subject to that state's privacy legislation. Both denied playing a role in leaking the "secret police files". Indeed, the speed with which the police ruled itself out as a suspect in this unlawful disclosure was breathtaking – it apparently doesn't need to investigate a leak these days to know whether a party is guilty or innocent.

Yet if either of these agencies cared that confidential information they had been entrusted with had appeared on a newspaper's front page, some of their representatives had trouble expressing their concern. Stewart, for example, inferred that the listed fans (again, most of whom have never been charged) were "grubby pack animals". He's a police officer – but who needs evidence, right?

And then there was the response from Sydney broadcaster Alan Jones, who is one of the SCG Trust's trustees. He interviewed the Telegraph journalist who wrote the article, Rebecca Wilson, the day after it was published. When she referred to a "cultural problem" within soccer, Jones asked: "Is this like terrorism in Paris? The leaders have no guts?"

Yes, we know we shouldn't take Jones seriously. The question is: why does the NSW government? Does it really help the trust to keep a board member who publicly celebrates a privacy breach that affects the organisation he represents, and then compares soccer fans, whom the trust serves, to murderers? Over to you, Mike Baird.