Friday, September 24, 2010

Victoria's top cop goes too far

An editorial from the Herald Sun

WHEN does a police force cross the line from protection of the community to an intrusion into its legitimate affairs?

Victoria Police and Chief Commissioner Simon Overland have done that by secretly gaining access to the private telephone records of this newspaper in a witch-hunt for whistleblowers within its own ranks.

The Herald Sun freely admits it has embarrassed Chief Commissioner Overland by exposing the blunders within his own office. That is the job of a free and independent newspaper in holding not only Mr Overland to the utmost scrutiny, but also the Government that appointed him.

But legitimate scrutiny is not what the police force is doing in the case of the Herald Sun and perhaps other companies going about their daily business.

The police have paid telecommunication providers for access to phone records in the hope of identifying any of its members who might have spoken to our journalists.

It is ironic that we were alerted by police officers who, like us, think the surveillance is potentially dangerous and at the very least unwarranted.

If Mr Overland wants to close down any conversations between his officers and Herald Sun journalists, to the extent of controlling their every word through his media office, that is his concern. Spying on its members might also be a concern of the Police Association.

What is our concern is that the Chief Commissioner is not only using taxpayer money, he is diverting these funds from the pursuit of criminal matters. Better that he spend the community's money on preventing murders by criminal gangs and outlaw bikies, who have transferred their drug-related activities to Victoria after crackdowns in other states.

The Herald Sun, in its Right to Know campaign, is pushing for national shield laws for journalists to protect whistleblowers as much as the journalists they speak to. It is these witnesses to government and bureaucratic maladministration who keep institutions honest. This is right and proper and Victoria Police is one such institution whose own members are best placed to watch for similar excesses.

But just how far does police surveillance intrude into the business of companies other than the Herald Sun? Does it extend to even the higher echelons of the Victorian Government? How long has this surveillance being going and will these records be destroyed? Where are the checks and balances and what other investigations have been hindered as money has been diverted?

Tapping phone conversations requires a court order from a judge and the Herald Sun argues that the monitoring engaged in by the Victoria Police requires the same judicial oversight. Under its current code of intrusion, it needs only an inspector to sign off on an order to save what Mr Overland might consider an embarrassment.

The next phone call the Chief Commissioner receives should be from Premier John Brumby to tell him to get on with the job of catching criminals.


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