The thought police cometh

The furore surrounding academic Barry Spurr's private emails is a gross invasion of privacy by the media -- and our civil discourse is much poorer for it.

Two years ago, after some extraordinary exchanges in parliament over the ‘Slipper affair’, I wrote: “Be careful what you say or think in private -- you are no longer free to decide the boundaries of good taste for yourself. From now on, everything you say is public.”

University of Sydney academic Barry Spurr was obviously not a regular reader of Business Spectator at that time. He has now been suspended because apparently offensive but private emails have been leaked to the media.

This is yet another grave invasion of the private sphere by the national media. But to treat this matter with some consistency, it’s important to make two points clear.

Firstly, one does not have to support the content of a private communication to support the idea that privacy should be respected unless there is a compelling public-interest reason to breach it – such as when it has a bearing on a high official’s ability to discharge their duties, or when a criminal act is being hatched. And even those examples contain many grey areas.

Secondly, privacy is not a matter of left or right. The release of private communications have been capitalised on by both side of politics in recent times.

In the Spurr case, there are comments clearly intended to be read ironically, and others that in context may or may not indicate unsavoury views. I don’t know, and nor should I care (though I’m sure Spurr and his lawyers care a great deal). Professor Spurr’s public utterances and actions are where media attention should be focused.

Two years ago, parliament erupted into a bizarre media circus over whether or not then-Speaker Peter Slipper had described female genitalia, in a private text message, as “a mussel removed from its shell” and one or two other vulgarities.

As I wrote at the time, the message had questionable relevance to sexual harrassment charges brought against Slipper, and no bearing on his ability to fill the role of Speaker. What was at issue, it seemed, was not that parliamentarians didn’t send such crude messages -- certainly some do -- but that Slipper had been caught out.

The Coalition used that event to try to destabilise the Gillard government. When Slipper stood aside, the delicate balance in the House of Representatives came very close to tipping point.

And now the boot is on the other foot. The left of politics, supported by Bill Shorten calling the comments (not the privacy breach) “disgusting”, is attacking a man perceived to be supporting the Abbott government’s education agenda -- specifically, the politically charged national curriculum review.

So Slipper’s privacy was trashed because he supported Gillard. And Spurr is getting a trashing because he’s worked for Abbott.

This is childish, harmful to serious national debate, and a worrying trend that will stop consenting adults communicating freely with one another because of a McCarthy-era-like paranoia that, even when one’s comments do not reflect on one’s public duties, they can still leak into the public sphere and cause harm.

This all comes just a week after a debate sprang up about whether left-leaning journalism lecturers were allowing their private views to poison the minds of undergraduates.

Presumably the left will make the counter-accusation: that Spurr secretly wishes to fill undergraduates’ heads with un-PC thoughts. Shorten has already suggested that they have a bearing on the national curriculum.

Civil discourse is the loser in all of this. Academics and the rest of us are entitled to private communication. Academia must be a place where controversial ideas can be debated.

And something more than ‘disgust’ at somebody’s alleged private sentiments must be produced if they are to be publicly pilloried. Anything else is a witch-hunt, be it from left or right.