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Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Getting the balance right reporting on the ALRC privacy report

The coverage of the ALRC privacy reform proposals, particularly the proposed cause of action for breach of privacy, in some media seems somewhat inaccurate and a little over the top. All of the following are from The Australian

It started yesterday with"Privacy laws to protect celebrities": One of the 295 recommendations is for "the Government (to) legislate to introduce a privacy law for the first time."Correction:Australia has had a privacy act since 1988 .

" Privacy overhaul a win for those with most to hide"includes this from the producer of 60 Minutes:"The tentacles of this run to the very core of an investigative journalist's role in the community, which is why the public interest provisions have to be enshrined if they go ahead with this." And this in "Media fight looms on privacy laws" from a spokesperson for Australia's Right to Know : "Protection of privacy needs to be balanced against the public interest in allowing the free flow of information and upholding freedom of speech," . Correction:that is exactly what is proposed.

"Real news will be at risk"includes this "When the Australian Law Reform Commission unveiled its push for a new way to sue the media, it had a problem. The most it could do was point to the actions of judges, not journalists."Correction: the proposal is for a cause of action for breach of privacy and is not aimed specifically at the media. As for complaints, most people affected haven't complained because that would draw further attention to what is being complained about- an alleged breach of privacy. Given the absence of meaningful compensation who would want to go through the process. As to numbers of complaints, there has been a steady stream of complainants to the Australian Press Council over the years.

All media organisations and journalists (MEAA menbers at least) can point to codes of conduct that include respect for privacy-but none define the term, or provide meaningful redress.Some including the MEAA do not publish information about complaints.

While there is plenty of room for debate about the details, the proposal sensibly suggests some meat on the bone, sets a high hurdle for action, isn't aimed specifically at the media, and is balanced by the public interest and the right to freedom of expression.

And guess what? On other related issues" Debate rages on privacy legal reforms" The Australian reported that business and government agencies don't think much of the idea that they should tell us when serious breaches of security affect personal information they hold about us. Unfortunately the release of the report coincided with "Ticketek bungle prompts privacy debate", but it could have been worse-only email addresses were involved. Political parties can't be far behind in telling us that bringing them under privacy laws will surely be the end of the world as we know it.

I have a sneaking suspicion there is a fair degree of support out there for the views of 2SM's Leon Delaney:
"Among the more vocal critics of the report is a group calling itself the “Right To Know Coalition”, a collection of powerful media companies led by News Ltd, who are concerned about the possible impact that the proposed changes would have on journalism. In particular, it is suggested that investigative journalism would become much more difficult, and that journalists and their publishers could be subject to new forms of legal action.

While it is important to protect the freedom of the press, and freedom of speech itself, I wonder if the Coalition is more worried about the massive revenue derived from tabloid reporting of the private lives of celebrities. Genuine investigative reporting will continue to be protected because of the public benefit. However, what passes for investigative reporting these days often amounts to Today Tonight or A Current Affair pursuing nickel and dime panhandlers and trailer trash welfare cheats and making a spectacle, rather than tackling serious issues with broader significance.

There seems to be an unhealthy obsession with the private lives of movie actors and pop stars driving a massive celebrity trivia industry. If these so called news outlets really want to do something about preserving the freedom of the press it would be a good idea if they did something a little more worthwhile with that freedom."
Elsewhere in the Blogosphere I liked North Coast Voices suggestion that the Commission deserves a medal:
"You've got to admire the guts shown by the Australian Law Reform Commission.
With the Rudd Government still dragging its heels on implementing the very moderate reforms to sedition laws recommended by the commission two years ago and within a week of the Iemma Government giving NSW Police carte blanche to bug our phones and read our emails without first getting a warrant; the ALRC presents its report on privacy. I'll be blowed if I know why it hopes that pollies will be bothered to even read the executive summary, public servants be moved to do anything but buttress their 'right' to supadupa unsafe data bases or business curtail that endless quest for more and more information it can crunch into digital form and on sell - but I appreciate the incurable optimism displayed."

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