Search of journalist’s phone by Senate attendant called ‘unconscionable’

The federal parliamentary press gallery has said the search and seizure of a journalist’s phone in Senate question time was an “unconscionable and unacceptable transgression of press freedom”.

The press gallery president, Fairfax photographer Andrew Meares, has written to the president of the Senate, Stephen Parry, asking him to investigate the encounter, in which the phone of a BuzzFeed journalist, Alice Workman, was searched after she tweeted about Labor senator Stephen Conroy playing Candy Crush in the chamber.

Workman complained that an unidentified attendant asked to see her phone and to follow him out of the Senate press gallery during question time on Thursday. She said this happened minutes after she sent the tweet about Conroy playing a Candy Crush-style game on his iPad.

— Alice Workman (@workmanalice)
March 17, 2016

Labor Senator Stephen Conroy is playing a colourful candy crush style game on his iPad during #SenateQT.

Workman said the ban on photos in the Senate prevented her taking photographs of the senator playing the game:

— Alice Workman (@workmanalice)
March 17, 2016

Unfortunately because of the Senate photo ban, you’ll never see a pic of it.

“I followed [the attendant] out, and he asked me to open my phone and show him my pictures,” Workman said. “He searched through my phone. I took no photos, so there was nothing there. He saw that and then continued to question me about what I was doing for a few minutes.

“Then he gave me my phone back and let me go back inside. He warned me that we are not allowed to take photos in the Senate. Which I know, and I didn’t. Just to let you know, it was pretty intimidating.”

Workman later retweeted a tweet from Mathias Cormann about Conroy playing Candy Crush:

— Mathias Cormann (@MathiasCormann)
March 17, 2016

I’m tweeting during Labor filibuster. Conroy playing candy crush during answer by Defence Minister on defence issues

In his letter to Parry, Meares wrote: “The gallery committee are deeply concerned about this unconscionable and unacceptable transgression of press freedom. We wish to register our protest to you in the strongest possible terms.”

He asked why and under what authority the attendant had removed Workman from the gallery and seized and searched her phone. “Who requested the attendant approach Ms Workman in the press gallery during question time? Why was Workman targeted?”

He asked why sections of parliamentary media rules relating to non-interference with the media’s duties and consultation with the press gallery committee had not been complied with.

“It is regrettable Workman felt intimidated in the fulfilment of her duties when she was fully compliant with the rules at all times,” Meares said. He urged Parry and the Senate usher of the black rod, Rachel Callinan, to consult the press gallery committee when considering claims of non-compliance with media rules.

Meares also wrote to press gallery members, encouraging them to seek advice from legal counsel before surrendering any documents or devices to attendants until the matter was resolved.

A spokeswoman for Conroy said he had no involvement and was not aware the journalist had been approached.

A spokesman for Parry said he had no comment at this stage. He has been presiding over a marathon all-night session about Senate voting reform legislation.

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