Feared federal prosecutor John Thornton, who is in charge pending the appointment of a new federal director of public prosecutions (the previous bloke recently became a judge) has a lot on his plate, with people smugglers, drug barons and terrorists carrying on their dreadful trade.
Surely one of the tasty morsels for the tough-on-crime no-nonsense federal prosecutor is the opportunity to bring rogue journalists at The Age newspaper to justice over credible allegations (essentially admitted in the pages of their own journal) that they illegally penetrated a voter database administered by the Victorian Electoral Commission and entrusted to the political parties.
It contains a whole range of confidential information, including date of birth, private phone numbers and addresses that could be very easily misused by identity thieves and rogue journalists.
As the Australian’s scoop-meister John Ferguson and the delightfully named Chip Le Grand reported today, The Age’s three journalists, believed to include the bright, award-winning and ambitious scribe Nick McKenzie, journo stalwart and lefty spear-chucker Royce Millar are ensnared in a trap of their own making. Ben Schneiders also hacked in for researching a yarn or too, and reputedly searched on folk unrelated to a story.
Media industry insiders still express shock and incredulity at the brazen nature of their alleged crimes, given that it occurred during the UK tabloids voicemail hacking scandal that Fairfax were rather gleefully reporting on at the time, given that it involved the parent company of their local competitors.
Ferguson revealed today that the Victoria Police had concluded their investigation and had referred the evidence of wrongdoing to the Commonwealth Director of Prosecutions in July. The delay is not unusual for white-collar offences, legal insiders have explained to VEXNEWS, and yet we cannot help but feel the urgency of the mission to bring them to justice given the steady drumbeat of media analysts who assert the newspaper will cease to publish some time soon.
We will keep a close eye on the deliberations of Mr Thornton and his hard-working colleagues in the days and months ahead on this important matter of public interest.
The Australian’s report – in full – is here for your reading pleasure.
Age trio faces DPP scrutiny on ALP files
BY: JOHN FERGUSON AND CHIP LE GRAND From: The Australian October 19, 2012 12:00AM
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COMMONWEALTH prosecutors are considering whether to lay criminal charges against three journalists from The Age newspaper accused of unlawfully accessing information from an ALP database on the eve of the 2010 Victorian election.
Victoria Police yesterday confirmed it had referred a brief of evidence against the journalists to the Office of the Commonwealth Director of Public Prosecutions following a nine-month investigation during which the newspaper’s Melbourne offices were raided by detectives from the E-Crime Squad.
A Commonwealth DPP spokesperson said federal prosecutors had received the brief and “the matter is being assessed according to standard prosecution policy”. It is understood the Commonwealth DPP has had the brief since July. The Victoria Police investigation was prompted by a complaint lodged last year by the Victorian Electoral Commission.
The complaint accused The Age journalists of accessing without permission the Eleczilla database, which holds confidential information of voters.
Under the Commonwealth Cybercrime Act 2001, it is illegal for individuals to access data on any computer system if that data has built-in restrictions such as passwords. Breaches carry penalties of up to two years in jail.
The Australian Federal Police yesterday confirmed Victoria Police initially referred the complaint to them last October. After they judged there was insufficient evidence to warrant a federal investigation, Victoria Police launched its own investigation in which it interviewed the journalists involved and seized material from The Age offices.
The Age admitted in a story published under the lead byline of staff reporter Royce Millar that it had gained access to the database. The newspaper denied this amounted to hacking, as it had been provided with a password to the database by a Labor Party election worker. The story also carried the byline of Walkley-winning reporter Nick McKenzie. A third reporter, Ben Schneiders, was involved in accessing the database from the offices of The Age. The then editor-in-chief of The Age, Paul Ramadge, was present when the database was accessed. He was not investigated.
A Fairfax Media spokesman said last night: “Our journalists followed completely appropriate processes in collecting information — they are professional journalists. As such we stand by them and will support them, and will defend any charges if they eventuate.”
The front-page report was published in the final week of the election campaign under the headline “Revealed: How the ALP keeps secret files on voters”. The story acknowledged, but did not investigate, a similar database kept by the Liberal Party.
Registered political parties have an exemption under the Privacy Act to maintain databases containing voter information. It has been known for many years that political parties accumulate large databases by recording details of constituents who call electorate offices with queries.
As part of its reporting, The Age used the database to search for names of high-profile Victorians including then police chief Simon Overland, radio broadcasters Jon Faine and Neil Mitchell, builder Daniel Grollo and barrister Peter Faris QC.
The Age later defended the actions of its reporters, saying they had done “nothing improper, unethical or illegal” and accessing the database was a “wholly legitimate exercise of journalism”.
Labor believes The Age story contributed to the party’s knife-edge loss at the election. However, the ALP is not a complainant in the case.
“This is coming from the VEC and not us,” a party source told The Australian. “It has taken a long time for the matter to be dealt with. We had assumed it was all dead and buried. There is nothing in it for us.”
The VEC complaint was lodged under former electoral commissioner Steve Tully.