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Friday, March 27, 2009

Privacy and the media-occassional mistakes or something more?

John Hartigan of News Ltd and Australia's Right to Know acknowledged during his opening comments (speech) at the Free Speech Conference, "the media does make mistakes, as some of our newspapers realised last week ... and more mistakes will happen", but blamed this on human frailty-something we all know about- rather than malice or arrogant disregard. After the Conference Mr Hartigan is reported to have said

".. he hoped the fake Pauline Hanson pictures would not hurt the media freedoms campaign. "The reality is that there were a couple of judgments that had to be made with that story," he told The Sydney Morning Herald online. "One was, was it in the public interest and was it an invasion of her privacy? "Number two, was ... if the image was of her, and regrettably, it failed the test. "Editors make judgments a thousand times a day. "That was a particularly significant judgment. They got it wrong and they copped the opprobrium of the community, and so be it."

It's not clear from this whether Mr Hartigan thought the editors had slipped up on both judgments although one interpretation is that, as a couple of editors themselves acknowledged, the only mistake was that the photos were of someone else.

I agree that one poor judgment should be seen in context, but the record includes more than an isolated incident- a couple of other recent questionable calls (by Fairfax publications as it turns out) were mentioned when I first took issue with the claim everything was rosy in the media privacy garden two weeks ago. A reader has also been in touch about publication last month of the image and first name on television and in the papers of a former girlfriend of a man charged in Victoria with arson during the bushfires and separated from him for over a year, wondering about any conceivable public interest in that one.

Presumably Mr Hartigan-because he hasn't said otherwise- still is of the view that overall, the media-privacy framework is working well and no changes are required.The proposed statutory cause of action clearly would have important implications for the media but it is only one of the proposals from the Australian Law Reform Commission that are relevant. For example that the media exemption from the Privacy Act only be available where there is a commitment, and conduct evidencing that commitment, to standards that deal with privacy adequately in accordance with criteria established by the Privacy Commissioner (more than yes, we signed up to something we all thought was pretty good); and the exemption to only apply to journalism as defined, not entertainment or other such activities of media organisations.

New criteria would almost certainly require some changes to aspects of current arrangements. As Mark Scott of the ABC- who also said the media needs to look closely at the cause of action proposal- told the Conference, the Australian Press Council - the self-regulatory body of the print media - is largely powerless and opaque.

There is a need for some serious discussion and debate- of a more substantive kind than that at the Free Speech Conference- about these issues, including points raised in a just published policy statement from the Australian Privacy Foundation such as

"Appropriate forms of action must be available when complaints are upheld. The primary recourse needs to be published acknowledgement of inappropriate behaviour, and apology. In the case of privacy intrusions that are serious, blatant or repeated, a gradated series of sanctions is necessary, including professional rebuke, and the award of adequate (but not excessive) damages against corporations and against individuals.

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