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Monday, July 11, 2011

News of the World raises Australian questions

The ramifications of the News of the World shame and closure for the farther reaches of the Murdoch empire including here are unknown. News Australian Chief Executive (and leader of Australia's Right to Know) John Hartigan (pdf) on Friday attempted to distance the local operations from the scandals:
I know, and I believe everyone here at News Limited knows that the events in the UK in no way reflect who we are, what we do and what we believe in as a media organisation. We have obligations to do the right thing by ourselves, our colleagues, our readers and advertisers, and, more broadly, to the communities we serve in an ethical and moral way. The decision to close the News of The World acknowledges that once the contract of trust between the newspaper and its readers had been breached it was damaged beyond repair. It is appropriate to remind everyone at News Limited that unethical and immoral behaviour is not tolerated. We have a Code of Professional Conduct in addition to the MEAA code. My personal belief is that adherence to these codes is the guiding principle to everything we do. I am confident that the practices that have been uncovered in the UK do not exist in Australia, at News or any other respectable media outlet. Given the wider reputational impact on all journalists as a result of the events in the UK I want to remind everyone that adherence to our ethical code is fundamental to our right to publish and a fundamental requirement of our work, every day. 
Issues raised in our neck of the woods include not only journalism ethics, responsibilities and standards, but media self regulation particularly concerning privacy; the Australian, NSW and Victorian law reform commissions separate recommendations for a statutory right to legal action for a breach of privacy on which the three governments concerned are yet to say a word; and any "fit and proper" questions that might emerge here concerning News subsidiaries. (Debate about these issues was in full swing a few days later.)

Will Mr Hartigan's statement lead to some serious examination of  journalism ethics, responsibilities and standards? An early contribution from Margaret Simons queried whether many News journalists across the country know of the existence or content of their company code, a point contested by News. (Update: more in Crikey today as Margaret asks could phone hacking happen here?) Former Prime Minister Paul Keating last year urged media and journalism leaders to come out from behind the cloak of the Fourth Estate to talk up the issue of media ethics and standards, including respect for privacy. He pointed out many failings including the unsatisfactory system where different codes of practice and different standards apply across the broadcast and press industries, calling for industry wide consideration of acceptable practice. The MEAA, the APC, Free TV and ACMA all have different codes of conduct. So does News apparently. But there's is not publicly available (Update: News in exchanges with Margaret Simons says it has always been around if you looked hard enough and they haven't previously put it on their websites because no one asked. Courtesy of Crikey here is the News Limited code in full.)The Keating speech has plenty more on these issues if you are interested.

Will there be some roll on from British Prime Minister David Cameron's comment that the press tradition of self-regulation there has failed? As reported in the New York Times Mr Cameron said “I believe we need a new system entirely,” prompting the paper says, an outcry "from British journalists who have long resisted statutory restrictions on their freedoms, arguing that the press is able to police its own affairs." Eric Planner of the same paper notes that the UK already has "fearsome libel laws and an unwritten privacy code" and suggests it "does not need more regulation of the news media. What it needs is a nasty, tabloid-style divorce — in this case, to keep powerful press barons and politicians from sharing the same beds." Chris Merritt in The Australian today predicts the end of the UK Press Complaints Council, with the debate about what might replace it.

A key element of media self regulation in our system that goes to the matter at the centre of the current controversy is privacy. Media organisations are exempt from the Privacy Act in the conduct of journalism on condition they abide by an industry code. In the case of the print media this is administered by the Australian Press Council, the equivalent of the UK Press Complaints Council. The ALRC found gaps, inconsistencies and weak enforcement provisions in the self regulation arrangements and proposed strengthening in its 2008 Report, including that any scheme must satisfy the Privacy Commissioner that it adequately protects privacy. The Australian, Mr Hartigan and Australia's Right to Know have said nothing publicly since arguing in submissions during the inquiry that no changes were necessary. In Mr Hartigan's words-and despite evidence and contrary opinion (Roger Clarke of the Australian Privacy Foundation for example has said media self regulation in this area is a joke)-"the system is effective and works well." It hasn't and doesn't- the Keating speech has more detail.The Federal Government says it will get around to looking at this in 2012.

How will the invasion of privacy of ordinary people (perhaps up to 4000) by News of the World journalists and investigators used by them play out in civil cases in the UK courts, and how will the issues raised impact on thinking here about another ALRC recommendation, for a statutory cause of action for a serious and unwarranted breach of privacy? (Separate reports by the NSW and Victorian commissions recommend something similar.) How will News involvement in UK developments impact on the credibility of the campaign it leads in Australia to oppose such a move? We have plenty of own home grown examples, not all involving the media, but hacking into the voicemail messages of a dead teenage girl and deleting some, and hacking the phones of her parents and the families of terrorism victims and soldiers killed abroad has set a new low standard. It's just the sort of example that shows the need for legislation and why if such things were alleged locally we should not leave it to the courts on a case by case basis to see if the common law can accomodate action for breach of privacy. Prominent Melbourne lawyer Justin Quill who acts for News may have been over egging a bit when he spoke to the Herald Sun (5 March 2010) last year in the context of the Favola/Bingle photos, but a plaintiff claiming breach of privacy is certainly up against it in the courts:
‘There is no right to privacy in Australia’. Quill said ‘I can write that a few different ways if you’d like, but it won’t change the position…You hear a lot of people talking about their right to privacy. But unless they’re talking about some moral right to privacy, they’re talking about something that doesn’t exist in this country..."
Chris Merritt quotes me correctly in The Australian today that the UK developments should make it more difficult to oppose calls for the federal government to create a privacy tort, or civil action. But the lead in sentence (emphasis added), "fears have emerged that invasions of privacy by NoW could revitalise a push for a new way of suing the Australian media," is all his own doing. I've been urging statutory action on this for years as far preferable to leaving the issue to the development of the common law. Any fears are mostly held by those who manage and work at or for The Australian. They are not shared by all industry leaders (Mark Scott of the ABC for one) commentators and journalists (Jonathan Holmes, Matthew Ricketson and Jack Waterford for three urge a negotiated legislative response) let alone little old me.This is another issue that the Government has preferred to park for consideration in 2012. And conveniently to sit out any recent or current debate on the subject unless the UK developments and News Australian presence prompt Minister for Privacy and Freedom of Information O'Connor into saying something more than we will get around to look at this some time.(Addendum: I subsequently remembered that minister for communications etc Stephen Conroy on Q&A last October said:
"But I also think this country needs to face up to a debate around the tort of privacy. I mean, if you look around the world there's much greater protection for individuals privacy than we've got here in Australia and on the one hand we've got a campaign on called The Right to Know. Well, we need to have some balance between the right to know and the tort of privacy so I personally am a fan of these concepts."

Two other questions-there may be more:
Will a proposed examination by the UK communications regulator Ofcom of whether News Corporation, as an organisation, would make a "fit and proper" owner of BSkyB mean similar questions will be raised here by ACMA concerning ownership by or investment by News subsidiaries of regulated media assets?

Will these developments raise a question whether Sky, effectively one third owned by News, is fit and proper to run the Australia Network, the international television broadcasting service funded by the Department of Foreign Affairs now in tender competition between Sky and the ABC for the ten-year $223 million contract, with one criteria the "national interest"?
Update: Jonathan Holmes on Media Watch last night said Minister Conroy's office advised there is no "fit and proper" criteria involved .Read the response from the Office of Senator Conroy to Media Watch's questions

1 comment:

  1. Privacy issues in the Australian media are affected by individual publications' editorial policies and also the nature of the public sector. Say for example, the CMC in Qld in their survey of prison officers, measures the degree to which other officers perceive other officers leaking info to the media, and that indicator is very typical of other government departments such as the police, although that one is the only survey that really deals with the issue in an honest, open way and sets about creating some transparency. The police would never participate in such a survey and it would turn most public servants green at the gills.

    Another issue that arises in the media and has done for decades, is the preference for employing the relatives of police officers, particularly as court/police rounds reporters. While police rounds reporters(though not all but definitely a mainstream majority) are well documented as doing favours for, or "looking after" their police sources(which doesn't depend on any exchange of funds but a mutually beneficial relationship), there is a readily identifiable pattern evident in today's mainstream media "tabloids" showing that recruitment practices cause problems not just with the leak of privileged information but also in the inherent bias that stems from a lack of independence and neutrality by journos who are ex/future-police or the children or nephews of police. Such a muddy relationship is documented in the recent book by Avon Lovell, in which a journalist at The West - a former officer - swapped info to gain employment in the AFP. But the case is in no way isolated, although the conflict of interest is never disclosed to the public as per regulation.

    Of journalists that I have spoken to who have gotten into trouble with the law(which is rare - the public only hear about legal issues relating to journos getting in trouble for wanting to protect sources' privacy) they have said that there has been unfair pressure placed on them by editors with regards to unethical behaviour. I think that sounds like a fair claim, which is supported by the dwindling circulations and the widespread mainstream redundancies.

    So, I would contend that the issue of privacy invasion is one that could be blurred by this type of blanket approach that all media undertake unethical behaviour - claims that corruption is systemic merely mask individual acts and never fix the issue.

    A systemic approach also won't eradicate unfair employment practices in the media industry, or unlawful, discrimminatory recruitment practices that mean news is presented with a bias and minorities are outcasts, and pariahs.