One of the safest working principles is that if it can be done, sooner or later it will be done, usually at the time that is most embarrassing for you.
A Professor of Poetry at the University of Sydney has had emails to colleagues and friends republished in New Matilda.com.au showing himself to be reactionary in his general outlook, and by any standards racist or misogynist. He is on several accounts a public figure, not least because his was an expert opinion used to give predictable advice on the subject matter of the English curriculum, as part of an entirely predictable "independent" review of school curriculums conducted by friends of the Federal Minister for Education, Christopher Pyne. A big feature of the reviews was the need to restore a little more reverence for western civilisation and Judeo-Christians.
This reminds me rather of Mahatma Gandhi's being asked what he thought about western civilisation and his response that he thought it would be a good idea.
Professor Barry Spurr has insisted that some of his published emails were part of a "whimsical linguistic game" in which he and recipients tried "to outdo each other in extreme statements". What he said, for example, about Abos, Chinky poos, bogans, fatsos, Mussies and worthless sluts did not reflect the public him, and that publication of what was in any event his private property has been an outrageous breach of his privacy. New Matilda insists that no hacking was involved, and pointed out that Sydney University, which "owns" the email address, has repeatedly warned those who use it that it is a public institution and owns the content. New Matilda says that any breach of privacy was justified by Spurr's involvement in the curriculum review, which made legitimate questions about where, mentally, he was coming from.
New Matilda was also involved in the leaking of the "award," as an exercise of personal discretion by the owner of a private education design college of an unadvertised "scholarship" worth about $60,000 to the daughter of the prime minister. Tony Abbott, whose daughter has otherwise been financially dependent on him, has indignantly insisted that the award was on merit and has nothing to do with him. Because of this, he says, he did not have to declare it as any form of personal gift to himself or his family. He naturally repudiates any suggestion that the receipt of such an unexpected gift, and from a person whose income depends on the discretion of the federal government, could be seen as any form of inducement, as improper, or as a matter which casts any light on
Meanwhile, in Darwin, Senator Nova Peris has been humiliated as a result of the publication of some steamy emails exchanged with an international athlete whom she was inviting to get involved in some sports mentoring programs in Aboriginal communities before the Olympic Games. All of the critical decisions involving the athlete were made by others, and he fulfilled his obligations admirably. But there is a suggestion that Peris had mixed motives in putting his name forward. Peris has alleged that the deeply embarrassing correspondence was leaked to News Corporation so as to blackmail her into settling a bitter family property and custody dispute, and, she suggests, News was aware of the background circumstances.
News Corp is, of course, a close cousin of British titles that became famous over recent years for hacking into the telephones of royal, celebrities, victims of crime and politicians who had annoyed them. Any suggestion that the apparent culture of the British cousin might have infected the Australian newspapers is indignantly repudiated here, although a certain gotcha culture, sometimes depending on emails, is not unknown here. There is, however, a bit of a pattern of The Australian becomingdeeply indignant if there is a leak to other non-News publications involving any breach of the privacy, or freedom of speech, of those on the conservative side of politics. By contrast it is usually exhilarated by any leak, wheresoever published, showing questionable or embarrassing material about luvvies, lefties and Laborites, whether or not invasion of privacy is involved. In such matters, almost by definition, public interest triumphs over personal interest.
Truth to be told, the usual suspects on both sides are quite often inconsistent in applying the balancing tests between a person's right to privacy and the legitimate scrutiny of the performance of a person in the public eye. Dare one say that exposure of hypocrisy, potential wrongdoing, contradiction, self-indulgence, or any of the modern sins of discrimination tends to be right or wrong in accordance with whether one favours, or dislikes, that person. It was likewise, of course, with the campaign of misogyny and snobbery against Saint Julia Gillard, alternatively described as the professional holding of the usurper to account.
I have said and done enough unwise things in private over the years to be entirely conscious of the risks of setting up absolute standards in such matters, even supposing that there were ever, or any longer, some magisterial and objective journalistic standard by which the weighing of arguments either way would automatically produce the right, or uniform, answer. It all depends, although in my view, journalists and editors should explain how and why they made their choices – and reluctance to do so is often a sign of guilty conscience.
What I do observe, however, is that the opportunities to breach privacy in the course of fearless pursuit of the public interest increase by the moment. Email, social media, Twitter, the capacity to take photographs and import and export images, and the general capacity of the internet have entirely changed the privacy environment. That is quite apart from the way in which some people, particularly the young, appear to lose all sense of discretion in the way they communicate, or what they vouchsafe, with each other on such mediums, or the capacity of, say, the mobile telephone to be a camera, a video camera, or a device showing exactly where and when someone was at some location.
And where there is the possibility that someone could misuse the information, it is virtually inevitable that some will. The temptations are too strong. And I do not refer to cash from the gutter press, or trashy TV programs. Far more likely, the motive will be revenge, jealousy, envy, boredom or simple mischief making.
The debate over metadata, and about police and security access to computers and telephones, has underlined how easy it is to discover information about others, but also how, in the modern day, we leave a trail every time we phone each other, use a credit or cash card, or access anything on the internet. There are those who worry that the big threat is of police or security misuse of information they can gather about you. A good many people distrust all of the assurances, sometimes with specious statements that those with nothing to hide have nothing to fear. But bureaucracies use systems, and do have rules, even if they, or individuals within them, sometimes bend them. Far more dangerous, in my view, are the far less accountable, or traceable, actions of private commerce, our acquaintances, our friends and even ourselves.
In another age, a sweet nun used to tell us that we should behave always as though the Blessed Virgin Mary herself were in the same room. I think she was speaking mainly of bad language, but the message could easily cover a wider range of activities; particularly if one is of a class of people occupying public office, exercising power over others, or, in one guise or another, telling others how one ought to behave. Even if one is none of the above, there is no certainty that one might not, by accident, be thrown into the limelight. If you can't be good, be careful.