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Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Victorian privacy case "threat" to press freedom?

ABC Television's Media Watch on Monday night had a segment about the Victorian decision to award damages to a rape victim named in ABC radio broadcasts, and ran strongly on the theme that this is likely to amount to a major new constraint on media reporting. The decision was the subject of our post on 4 April "Victorian Court awards damages for breach of privacy".

To talk all this up as a major threat to freedom of the press, is quite frankly, ridiculous. The ABC, and the two reporters involved clearly stuffed this up. Publication was a breach of the Judicial Proceedings Reports Act. There was no public interest in publication. The Court was satisfied that the plaintiff suffered real harm and that the law justified a payment of damages.

To now roll on as one of the lawyers interviewed on Media Watch did to say that this decision
"raises the potential that if you go to the football, or you go to the races and the media shows a photograph of a footballer or a horse and you're in the background, potentially you could have an action for breach of privacy"
is a very long reach indeed, and not justified on the basis of Judge Hampel's decision.

The NSW Law Reform Commission Discussion Paper on a statutory cause of action for privacy (promised for March) can't come soon enough.

Media Watch also included a segment about a Today Tonight story of a former Centrelink worker who appeared on the program to tell the world about Shapelle Corby's medical condition and dealings with Centrelink before her arrest and conviction on drug charges in Bali.

One telling observation from Gail Hambly, General Counsel of Fairfax Media, was "...I don't think we need a privacy law in Australia".

Really? Existing privacy laws (terribly deficient in many respects) provide a few protections regarding the handling of personal information. They need improvement, not repeal.

Ms. Hambly did go on to concede that if there is to be a right to sue it would be better if it was contained in a statute rather than left in the hands of courts to develop over time.

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