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Monday, March 23, 2009

News really sorry the photos weren't Pauline, but that was all.

"Pauline Hanson: I've said all week I'd be the first person to apologise to you if it were proven the pictures we published last weekend were not of you. I am now convinced we have the proof they were presented to us as part of an elaborate con. So Pauline, I'm sorry. We should never have published them."

So begins this personally written editorial by Neil Breen the Editor in yesterday's Sunday Telegraph. Breen goes on to explain that the paper was misled by the person they paid $15000 to hand over the photos and by the middleman paparazzo who acted on his behalf. But the only mistake Breen admits to was wrongly concluding the photos were of Hanson. If they were genuine, Breen suggests publication of photos of her undressed, regardless of when, where and the circumstances they were taken, were fair game:
"she was a public figure, running for election in Queensland in a return to front-line politics, who had written a detailed book about her life in which she laid her private life bare" and "(t)he paper believed - and still believes - there is massive public interest in Ms Hanson's life."
I won't repeat my contrary opinion in a post last Friday. There are plenty of opinions out there on the issue. But Breen's comments suggest important different understandings about the nature of the public interest.

In my view, in this context, there is a public interest shared with all other members of the community to know and be informed, and the media's Fourth Estate role to publish to this end. But there are limitations reflecting other public interests.Breen seems to equate the public interest with the publication of any information about someone in public life that he thinks some of us might find interesting.

An apology was offered in similar terms by the Editor of Melbourne's Herald-Sun and presumably by other News Ltd publications that ran the photos, but how do the TV stations and the hundreds of others who ran with the story make amends? The best columnist Robyn Riley who hopped into this with some enthusiasm a week ago could manage was a sorry for "being so tough" on Ms Hanson.

I had been still puzzling yesterday over this editorial in the Telegraph's stablemate The Weekend Australian on Saturday, the day before the deluge of apologies. Even the headline "The threat within" is darkly ominous and after a valid comment about a Victorian Freedom of Information matter, in paragraph four the writer takes a sharp turn in a completely different direction to open fire on those in the media who have chosen to differ with Australia's Right to Know line on the media and privacy, seeing them as some sort of fifth column whiteanting from within:

"Unfortunately, the governments, organisations and individuals who would render free speech increasingly f"ragile through secrecy, control and spin are being aided and abetted by the very people who should be fighting the trend at every turn -- sections of the Australian media. The latest example is the hypocritical push by Media Watch host Jonathan Holmes and Crikey editor Jonathan Green to discredit the Right To Know coalition's campaign against a statutory right of privacy. Holmes's and Green's arguments are so bereft of substance that they have been driven to create a cause celebre out of a woman their respective organisations have vilified for years, Pauline Hanson."
The editorial says Holmes' program is" driven by a potent mix of moral arrogance and corrosive cynicism" and that
"Holmes's and Green's pretence that the photographs published last Sunday discredit an important Right to Know campaign to protect democracy and safeguard free speech is a quantum, illogical leap.It is indicative of a mindset better suited to running a black pencil through real journalists' FOI requests than reporting the news."
Well of course Green and Holmes weren't the only ones who had strong views about the broader implications of the "Hanson" photos for the media.By yesterday The Telegraph and the Herald-Sun in their apology editorials were acknowledging they had heard plenty from readers this week in letters, phone-calls and emails expressing outrage at the publication of the photos, genuine or not. The Herald Sun admitted it had failed in an important public duty that might take years to rectify:
"The trust you place in us to deliver the news fairly and accurately has been seriously breached. Rest assured, we have heard you. Over the coming months and years, the Sunday Herald Sunwill work hard to rebuild that trust. So, to you, the reader, the Sunday Herald Sun also apologises.
My guess is that most letter writers would share the hope of Editor-at-Large of the Canberra Times Jack Waterford that
" big media organisations would have at least the sense to understand that they will get no concessions( on free speech issues) while their house is not in order. Particularly on privacy."
And that whatever support there might have been for the proposition put by
John Hartigan of Australia's Right to Know that the existing media-privacy framework works well might have been eroded by this and other events that suggest some in the media think the right to know slogan justifies publishing just about anything.

With exquisite timing this Tuesday's Free Speech Conference organised by Australia's Right to Know in Sydney includes two sessions on privacy and the media, one a debate on "Private lives versus the public domain- Where should the media draw the line when it comes to respecting the privacy of people in the news?"

Participants are Robert Todd, Partner, Blake Dawson, Gail Hambly, Group General Counsel and Company Secretary, Fairfax Media group, Peter Meakin, Director of News & Current Affairs, Seven Network, David Penberthy, former editor, The Daily Telegraph, Professor Roger Clarke, Chairman, Australian Privacy Foundation and visiting professor at Cyberspace Law & Policy Centre, Faculty of Law, UNSW, and Nigel Waters, Pacific Privacy Consulting.

Too late to substitute Pauline Hanson and Neil Breen I suppose, but that would be a face-off many, to use Breen's terms, would find very interesting.

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