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Wednesday, March 18, 2009

The right to know AND the right to privacy.

There are few journalists or media executives in Australia with anything like the 'right to know " credentials of Jack Waterford, earned over 30 odd years with the Canberra Times, a pioneer in the effective use of Freedom of Information law in investigative journalism, and these days Editor-at- Large. When Waterford speaks, as he did today in "The media kicks an own goal," about this week's photo fiasco and the need for the media to get its house in order on privacy, others listen, or at least they should:
"If the photos are fake, Hanson's chances of collecting handsome damages seem fairly good. So, presumably, does the actual subject of the photos. But Hanson stands a reasonable chance of getting damages even if they are genuine, and, frankly, I hope she does. In my opinion she should get damages both for defamation and for invasion of her privacy. The latter tort is in its infancy in Australia (its development being much opposed by media lobbies, particularly by News), but, this could be an ideal case for its expansion. As well as for underlining the fundamental hypocrisy of some of the media opposition....Like Hartigan and his industry-wide Right to Know Coalition, I would like to see a considerable extension of the media's right to know what is going on in public affairs, and to tell the public about it. In general, the practical difficulties of doing so increase each year. They are not helped by the economic downturn, which is making media outlets reduce their costs and capacity to compete against those who want to restrict or control the flow of information.

But big media is deeply compromised by the behaviour of some of their organs. It is the primary reason why politicians, judges and others are able to resist greater scrutiny of government and public institutions and public figures by journalists and citizens. Tabloid television, celebrity journalism and the hypocritical and shameless exposure ''journalism'' exemplified by the Hanson episode sit uneasily alongside claims of acting in, or pursuing the public interest. So, alas, do the profits from it.

The public are not fools. Opinion poll after opinion poll confirms the poor standing of the media, and of cynicism about the nobility of the mission of media enterprises. There are many journalists of standing whose presentations are thought honest and whose opinions, even when unpalatable, command respect. But their work, and their capacity to do their work better, is continually undermined by what also occurs in the media, as often as not, through the same paymasters. It may well suit politicians to respond to this hostility, since it means there is less pressure on them. One would think, however, that big media organisations would have at least the sense to understand that they will get no concessions while their house is not in order. Particularly on privacy."

Crikey meanwhile lobbed a complaint on the Australian Press Council's doorstep, highlighting a few gaps in that media privacy framework that last Saturday was claimed to be effective and working well.

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