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November 27, 2022

Student faces jail for outing Abbott daughter’s scholarship

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Student protestors clash with police at the Whitehouse Institute of Design in Melbourne recently. The students were protesting the granting of a scholarship to Frances Abbott, the daughter of prime minister Tony Abbott. (AAP Image/Julian Smith)
Student protestors clash with police at the Whitehouse Institute of Design in Melbourne recently. The students were protesting the granting of a scholarship to Frances Abbott, the daughter of prime minister Tony Abbott. (AAP Image/Julian Smith)

Myriam Robin, Crikey media reporter

A 20-year-old university student faces up to two years in jail for allegedly accessing confidential computer records of 500 students at the Whitehouse Institute of Design, a private design school that’s been in the media spotlight lately for allegedly giving Tony Abbott’s daughter Frances a secret scholarship.

UTS student and former Whitehouse librarian Freya Newman is accused of breaching Section 308H of the NSW Crimes Act, which bans ‘unauthorised access to or modification of restricted data held in a computer’.

It’s not clear whether Newman was the leaker who outed Frances Abbott’s scholarship to the media.

In June, New Matilda, as well as The Guardian, revealed the prime minister’s daughter had received a $60,000 scholarship to study at the institute.

The scholarship was kept secret from Frances Abbott’s teachers and fellow students, had only been given once before, and was allegedly offered after only one meeting between Frances Abbott and the institute’s founder and managing director, Leanne Whitehouse.

Newman declined Crikey’s request for comment, and New Matilda editor Chris Graham said he wouldn’t confirm the identity of his sources.

But if Newman was New Matilda’s source and accessed the information in order to reveal the nepotism allegedly given to the prime minister’s daughter, it would do nothing to lessen the charges against her, whistleblowing experts told Crikey.

In January, a new whistleblowing bill, the Public Interest Disclosures Act, came into effect, which gave legal immunity to Commonwealth public sector officials who give confidential information to the internal government ombudsman or through other official channels.

There is also limited immunity for leaks to the media.

The fact-sheet on the Public Interest Disclosure Scheme states:

‘In limited circumstances where it is not contrary to the public interest, you have a right to make a public interest disclosure to anyone outside government if you have first made an internal disclosure and either the investigation has exceeded the time limit or your reasonably believe the investigation or its outcome was inadequate.’

Whistleblowers Australia president Cynthia Kardell tells Crikey this is woefully inadequate, and too narrowly defined to only apply to those who work for the government or in companies that contract to the government.

‘You’ll be told there are laws, like the Public Interest Disclosures Act. But there’s really almost no protection for whistleblowers.’

‘People take a risk in speaking to the media. They hope it won’t blow up in their face, but sometimes it does. I’ve seen this happen so many times, sources just get destroyed.’

A. J. Brown, a law professor at Griffith University and chairman of Transparency Australia, helped advise on the law. But he, too, says it leaves significant gaps.

‘(Newman’s charge) is a good example of why some kind of comprehensive whistleblower protection for the private sector is a very important issue for Australia,’ he told Crikey.

Given Newman’s employment in a private educational institution, ‘there is every chance she’s not covered by any whistleblower provisions at the moment’.

‘If she was employed by a public university, it could be a bit different,’ Brown added. ‘Universities are covered by different public sector whistleblower legislation.

‘But in the private sector, there’s nothing you’d call a proper whistleblower protection regime that could kick in.’

Whistleblowers in Australia are always able to pursue a common law defence, to argue that their disclosures were in the public interest.

But such actions are seen as audacious and unexpected to succeed.

The lack of whistleblowing protection in Australia makes life more difficult for journalists, particularly those who cover business or other private sector wrongdoing and need to rely on confidential information obtained from all sectors of society to shine a light into things others would rather stayed hidden.

It’s a dilemma New Matilda editor Chris Graham says he’s very aware of.

‘Whether or not she’s my source, I feel very bad for Freya,’ he told Crikey.

‘It’s a thoroughly indecent situation,’ he said.

‘People take a risk in speaking to the media. Usually they’re aware of the risk they’re taking. They hope it won’t blow up in their face, but sometimes it does. I’ve seen this happen so many times, sources just get destroyed.’

If a source is successfully hidden, police may target the journalist.

Shield laws, brought into Australia in recent months, may help journalists avoid disclosing their sources.

But with today’s electronic surveillance, police don’t need cooperation from journalists to investigate a leak.

Increasingly, sources are being outed without the journalists giving them up.

Even if police don’t find evidence of leaking, if they just have a suspicion about who it is, the mere act of searching through somebody’s past can lead to a conviction, says Graham.

‘I worked on a story a few years ago when they went after the person they believed to be the source. They never found anything linking that person to us, but in the process of going through everything they could, found other information that they then used against him.’

‘I’m staggered by the lack of public interest in that. That someone takes huge personal risk, for a great public benefit, and is rewarded with, in this case, bankruptcy. It’s just so incredibly unfair, but that’s how the system works,’ he said.

Both Kardell and Brown think the system could be improved through a comprehensive, Australia-wide whistleblowing provision that applies to the private sector.

‘If this happened in the United States, or even the United Kingdom, there’d be laws that could apply,’ said Brown.

If the alleged leaker did hack student records (the hacking claim is disputed by New Matilda), the best defence is political, Kardell says.

‘Police do have discretion,’ Kardell said. ‘They don’t investigate everything that turns up on their doorstep. Often, they say no one’s complained. And often, they’ll investigate if there’s a strong political interest.’

In this David and Goliath battle, perhaps this is a way out. A trial will keep the Whitehouse scholarship issue in the news for months, indeed, the charge has already led to a flurry of new coverage of the original scholarship.

‘There’s an amazing amount of money and power on the father’s side, who has full access to the law and can find ways to use the government to push it along,’ Kardell said.

‘No doubt somewhere along the way, someone will ask him whether this use of the Crimes Act is heavy-handed.’

Given the lack of jurisprudence around whistleblowers in Australia, there simply haven’t been a large number of cases, the experts Crikey spoke to were loath to guess what will happen next.

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  1. Should this end up in court, her defence team should be able to bring the whitehouse’s and Abbott into court under oath and question them on this scholarship issue and we as a community should crowd fund her case in support of free speech in light of Pyne’s university fee increases and related university admissions criteria,what is education worth to society if it is not attained by merit but by privilege of position.

  2. https://www.facebook.com/groups/294934367356557/

    Hi Echo daily , here is the facebook group.

    It comes down to this without knowing the specifics. She had authorised access, she had a login to a database system. She was not a hacker, she was not a system admin so had no server or computer admin access. If there was restricted access there would have been user group credentials in place which is the most basic feature of a database system. If there was security lacking how is this unauthorised and it most definitely was not hacking that is just sensationalism from the media.

    If she was an employee and did not sign a non-disclosure contract that forbids certain types of information being leaked and she was totally authorised to a system she would have needed access to as a librarian, then how is there grounds to charge her ?

    What is happening here is abuse of the legal system and the naivety of the police to charge her without understanding basic fundamental IT systems.

  3. The old image of Australia as the land of the ‘Fair Go’ and egalitarian oasis has never been so forcibly debunked. In fact Australia has become a country that rewards the covert illegality of the wealthy and actively punishes the less well heeled. The global trend of authoritarianism and increasing scrutiny and control of the populations is very obvious in Australia, which is now just a satellite outpost of the power elite. The nationalism and cultural stereotyping, which has been the hallmark of Australian society, is now just a flimsy camoflage for a rapidly developing oligarchy managed by a puppet theatre government that is essentially manipulated by powerful corporate groups. This latest outrage is merely a symptom of the much larger disease.

  4. The Institute where Frances studies is a PRIVATE Education Institution and therefore can give scholarships to whoever they like. Its kind of like when Labor politicians employ the sons and daughters of favoured political friends in their political offices (which happens constantly and these employees are actually paid using taxpayer funds)
    This is the risk you take when you decide to study a private institute and not a public one.
    No doubt Ms Whitehouse thought it was prestigiopus for one of Tony Abbott’s daughters to study at her institute and gave her the scholarship as a means of procuring her as a student. Unfair? Yes, but to think that this doesn’t happen in Leftist circles is absurb and plain wrong.

  5. I heard about this award through the Internet just after it was arranged. No I can remember where I read it – probably on the ABC page.

  6. In a decent, just society lifting the lid on apparent graft and corruption should earn you an Order of Australia for integrity. You’d even expect both sides of our Federal Parliament would deliver salutations for outstanding service to the nation. Instead this 20-year-old is being run through the legal system by powerful well-resourced players bent on supressing information they deem is not in the public interest. When a PM’s daughter is awarded a $60,000 scholarship in seemingly clandestine circumstances the public would be naive not to suspect that old practice of palm-greasing is alive and well at the highest level of the land. The reputation of Frances Abbott and executives at the Whitehouse Institute have been tarnished. So what benefit is there in a Prime Minister using his power and money to wreck the life of another young Australian – one with a quality we should all applaud and was evidently missing until the whistleblower arrived – a conscience.

  7. Aussie has never been the land of the fair go ?? WHAT ?? oh your white !!! Its a criminal conquered country run by London !! now and always a police state .. go on , vote , for the devil you know or the devil you now !!

  8. If people are going to try to out politicians & the like they need to understand – 1/ You had an agenda 2/ you knew what you were doing 3/ you illegally used your position to gain access 4/ what makes you judge & jury 5/ what was the intent of leaking this information 6/ what personal gain is in it for the all edged whistle blower

  9. The fact that Frances was the only applicant means it was gift therefore it should have ben declared. Our PM needs to be accountable…. after all isn’t the age of entitlement supposed to be over?

  10. The problem with Australia is the public never gets outraged. They will comment on a website or do a peaceful rally and go home. That is it. Because of that the politicians can do anything and get away with it. Where are the university students? In other countries they are the first get out to the road and raise their voice against this kind of bad politics!
    People here don’t care. They have to power to halt the system and bring the government to its kneels. But they are happy to let the politicians to quietly siphon their lifeblood out and watch TV.
    What we need is a generation like we had in 70’s that take no crap from the authority.

  11. Why can’t her father pay her allowance, after all he’s well able to afford it, and have a transparent policy for people applying for the scholarship? Well done to the person who bought this clandestine scholarship to light.

  12. Isn`t it odd that when the word confidential is used regarding documents, it usually means something irregular, unethical or outright corrupt, that the public have a right to know about,is being hidden. When it involves the Prime Minister of the country, who was well aware, which makes him complicit, it must surely cast a shadow over the whole government.

  13. @Marino: we haven’t had a decent, honest, trustworthy, government here for many, many, years – if ever. The current lot are corrupt, self-serving, deceitful, greedy and downright anti-human rights.

    @Don: the reason why no one becomes outraged enough to do anything here is because the public is fed a constrant stream of idiotic and unimportant television drivel in the form of reality tv shows to keep them distracted. I personally know of a handful of people who haven’t a clue who’s currently posing as PM in our country right now – all they’re know is the reality tv shows they live for! It doesn’t get much more pathetic than that.

    Bottom line, many Aussies are downright uneducated (read ‘stupid’) when it comes to politics – and when people don’t do politics, someone else will do it for them and take away their rights, their money and their freedom, which is what we’re seeing happen here.


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