Newman escapes conviction over Whitehouse “hacking” scandal

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21-year University of Technology Sydney student Freya Newman has been handed a two-year good behavior bond after entering a guilty plea to charges of unauthorised access of computer data. Magistrate Theresa O’Sullivan declined to record a conviction against Newman.

The data accessed by Newman revealed evidence of a secret $60,000 scholarship that had been given to Prime Minister Tony Abbott’s daughter, Frances Abbott, by Sydney-based private college, the Whitehouse Institute of Design.

Online news site New Matilda first exposed evidence of the secret scholarship in May and reported the institute’s owner Leanne Whitehouse had lobbied the PM last December to extend federal funds to non-university institutions (such as the Whitehouse Institute) at a private function held by the school.

Magistrate O’Sullivan handed down her judgment a month after hearing submissions from the prosecution and counsel for Newman.

O’Sullivan said Newman’s unauthorised access of computer data was “towards the lowest end of the scale”. The offence carries a maximum of penalty of two years imprisonment.

“[Newman] did not access highly sensitive or commercially sensitive data, such as a residential address or banking details”, she said.

Further, O’Sullivan accepted that Newman was “motivated by sense of injustice rather than personal notoriety, greed, or embarrassment of the [Frances Abbott].”

The Magistrate took into account the need to deter other offenders and the harm to the community that unauthorised access of data could cause, but held that recording a conviction against Newman was not necessary to address these concerns.

In October, police prosecutor Amin Assaad argued a conviction should be recorded against Newman to deter others from taking similar actions to Newman.

Newman’s barrister Tony Payne SC sought leniency from the court, asserting she held good intentions despite committing a criminal act.

“It was this sense of injustice, not a desire for personal notoriety that motivated [Newman’s] access,” he said.

“In her view, it was in the greater public interest. It should not be taken by the court as a willful breach of the law.”

The $60,000 Chairman’s Scholarship was awarded to Frances Abbott in early 2011 when Abbott was Leader of the Opposition. It was alleged the scholarship had only been given out once before to Leanne Whitehouse’s daughter, Billie Whitehouse, but the institute has since clarified Billie did not receive the Chairman’s Scholarship, but instead had her $68,182 tuition fees waived.

The institute’s website claims it does not give scholarships out for its Bachelor of Design course. Current and former Whitehouse students have said the school did not advertise the scholarship to them. In August, a former teacher of Frances Abbott’s told the Sydney Morning Herald he did not believe she “deserved” the scholarship.

Yesterday a Senate Inquiry into the regulation and funding of Australia’s vocational, educational and training schools was announced, led by the Greens Senator Lee Rhiannon and backed by the Labor Party.

The Sydney University Students’ Representative Council moved a motion of solidarity in support of Newman’s actions earlier this year.

Barrister and refugee advocate Julian Burnside has previously lauded Newman as a “whistleblower”.

“For drawing attention to a matter of genuine and legitimate public interest, Freya Newman deserves our thanks, not punishment,” he said.

Newman, a communications student majoring in cultural studies and journalism, also holds the position of President of the UTS Wom*n’s Collective.

Newman has been a vocal supporter of the cross-campus activist group Students for Wom*n’s-Only Services and in 2013 co-established RU4MyChoice, a UTS student society and advocacy group for reproductive health and rights, with former UTS Indigenous Officer Alison Whittaker.

Justin Pen