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Friday, July 15, 2011

Murdoch's UK woes bring Australian debate centre stage

The debate about ethics, responsibilities and journalism standards and broader issues concerning the media that seemed a long way off a week ago is now well under way, and unlikely to stop anytime soon. As Richard Ackland in the Sydney Morning Herald says
This story is unravelling so fast that it's impossible to predict all the ramifications. Nick Davies, the Guardian journalist who has done so much to crack open this scandal, says Murdoch has lost control of the outcome. It now has a life of its own and to a very large extent markets, not oligarchs, will determine what happens.

We have Greens leader Senator Bob Brown calling for a Senate inquiry into Australia's media ownership laws and into the ethical standards of journalists. Prime Minister Gillard said she will be happy to talk about it- that's better than nothing.

Then there's the Chairman of the Australian Press Council Professor Julian Disney in this report by Tim Dick in the Sydney Morning Herald :
There was clearly ''widespread concern'' about journalistic standards, despite the importance of the industry to public life, and journalism needed to take it more seriously. ''There are still too many instances where there is a somewhat cavalier attitude to the accuracy of reporting and that weakens the respect that the profession derives for the very many examples of extremely courageous, or dogged or highly perceptive coverage that we get,'' Professor Disney said. He said the Press Council would tell the federal government's review of media laws that there needed to be a unified system of regulation and standards, including for those who only operated online in an area not currently subject to regulation. He said they may be forced by statute to sign up to the council if they wanted the same rights as journalists. ''If we want to encourage serious bloggers, that may be the way,'' he said.
According to Nine news Professor Disney defended the Press Council as not completely a "toothless tiger" and suggested the Communication and Media Authority, the independent statutory body that regulates TV and radio shouldn't be held out as any exemplar:
"I don't think there's any evidence that radio and television is better regulated. "Certainly some people would take the view that some of the worst forms of media malpractice may indeed be in radio and television more than in print."
In another article Dick canvasses these issues more broadly.

There is some tit for tat between News and Fairfax about ethics with The Age rejecting accusations of hacking that surfaced a month ago. and the Sydney Morning Herald holding hand to heart in response to News claims.

Editors are saying "nothing illegal" about us-although that's only part answer to the question-"what was right in the circumstances?"

Former Prime Minister Paul Keating on Lateline last night had strong views about media self regulation and went on to champion the right to legal action for a serious and unwarranted breach of privacy:
PAUL KEATING: Well there's one thing that's clear for sure comes out of this and that is self-regulation by the media is a joke. A joke. You know, I notice tonight John Hartigan talking about the Press Council of Australia. I mean, people shouldn't have a right to appeal about invasions of their privacy to some body funded by newspapers; they should have a right at law.

What we need, what we seriously need, which has been now recommended by the Commonwealth Law Reform Commission, the Victorian Law Reform Commission and the New South Wales Law Reform Commission is a separate right-of-action in privacy, a separate tort.

So in other words, you don't have a right of appeal to some body, you have a right to action, you have a right to the law. In the end, the only regulator of this bad behaviour is the law. And, this episode in Britain ...

TONY JONES: Well there's certainly no right to privacy in the law in Australia at this time. And in actual fact, at a broader level, it's sometimes said that privacy will be one of the great issues of our time, because of the internet, because of Facebook, Twitter, etc., etc. But it doesn't seem that there's any chance at the moment you're going to get a consensus on this. Could the Murdoch issue reflect into this debate in Australia?

PAUL KEATING: Well, I mean, Minister Conroy's (sic-I thought I heard him correctly say Minister O'Connor Minister for Privacy and Freedom of Information) now sitting on the Commonwealth Law Reform Commission report. Very reasonable recommendations. It basically says if you had a reasonable right to privacy and there are no public issues involved and they are infringed, you have a right of action at law.
News Limited CEO John Hartigan on ABC 7.30 maintained everything here is above board but has announced a thorough review of all editorial expenditure over the past 3 years" to confirm that payments to contributors and other third parties were for legitimate services."

The Press Council and News are talking now about national industry wide standards -something Paul Keating was pushing to little avail a year ago.

How times change.

Funny thing that Jonathan Este of the MEAA asked me at the start of the year for some predictions about media related issues for 2011 . Here was one:
The adequacy of media standards, ethics, responsibility and self -regulation may come in for discussion.Some in the US are thundering about the need to do something about a number of issues: the publication of classified information improperly made available; stateless publishers; and regulation of internet  content to protect national security interests, all the time respecting First Amendment rights.

This may attract some interest here. But Hungary’s December 2010 media law with 200 pages devoted to regulating international and domestic print and broadcast media and the Internet, in the pursuit of responsible journalism, won’t catch on.

Media interests may be relaxed that consideration of reform of privacy laws will continue at snail’s pace. But real world developments, some media related, will continue to demonstrate limits on the right to be let alone, and challenge the idea that individuals have some degree of control over information of a personal nature. In the absence of legislation to provide remedy in the worst cases of unjustified invasion of privacy, the courts will continue to explore the limits of current and common law.

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