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Monday, May 24, 2010

"Right to know" about Campbell has Channel 7 making news

Plenty of opinion and even some social analysis out there arising from the decision by Seven Network News to out now former NSW Transport Minister David Campbell and plenty more to follow, I'm sure. Politicians differ on the question, so too do senior journalists who have opined so far. Public sentiment is strongly against. Debate about the framework within which the media deals with matters that have a private dimension, and the way it works in practice is necessary and welcome. An issue for 7 is whether what happened here constitutes a breach of standards that underpin the licensing system. Another for any MEAA journalist member involved is how it sits with their code of ethics.

NSW Premier Keneally left the question of propriety in publishing hanging:
 “I do think it’s a matter for debate whether or not a person’s sexuality is of relevance to their role as a minister or their role as a member of Parliament.”
Deputy Federal Opposition Leader Julie Bishop on The Insiders  surprisingly was prepared to accept virtually any media intrusion:
BARRIE CASSIDY: How do you feel about the way the media handled it?
JULIE BISHOP: Well that's a matter for the media to judge. I think that politicians know that they are fair game. We know that going into politics means that you don't have any private life and so the media is doing its job. But it's a sorry incident in Australian politics.
It will be a sorry day for politicians and others if we have reached the point where "they don't have any private life" although this might have been one of those Tony Abbott "not considered, not on paper" comments.( Graham Richardson shares her view according to this report : 'There is no privacy. Politicians don't have a right to any sort of private life any more,'' he told Channel Nine. ''And I don't think they've had that right for 20 years; it's been eroded steadily over time but now anything goes.'')

77% of more than 50000 votes on a poll on the Herald website are critical of 7's decision. So is David Marr whose opinion piece appears on the same link, who categorically dismissed any "right to know" argument.  Marr at the Sydney Writers' Festival responded to an assertion that any media organisation worth its salt would have published, by saying Herald journalists had known about Campbell for some time but had decided not to publish. Mark Day in The Australian says "by today's standards, an individual's sxxual preference is considered to be of no consequence." Day says news like this should have provoked a "so what" response and that Campbell could have chosen quite properly to hold his ground and dismiss a report about a private matter. However Day attaches weight to Campbell's statement in resigning and his admission of wrongdoing in some respects. On the question of whether politicians should be treated differently to the rest of us, Day says:
"Broadly, I'd say .. the answer is yes. When politicians stand for election they say, in effect, "Here I am; this is what I stand for; these are my values - vote for me." Therefore, if the truth is revealed to be something other than the intended projection, and if that truth is known to the highest echelons of those who govern us, but is kept secret from us, then the public is entitled to know it, too.
Dr Simon Longstaff of the St James Ethics Centre, taking the opposite view, said a key point was that Mr Campbell did not make his political career campaigning on moral issues.
"It doesn't seem to be true that it holds for David Campbell, who ... has done nothing more than be truthful about the fact that he has a family," he said. "I mean, you might think that using one's family to promote a political career has all sorts of problems. "But as far as I know, David Campbell is married, he does have a family and he has indicated that in his Christmas card because that is part of who he is. "I mean he is obviously a complex person. But to say that he has engaged in some kind of gross act of political hypocrisy is to make too great a statement in relation to this particular case."
On the rules that apply, the Seven Network is a member of the industry body Free TV Australia. The 2010 Code of Practice forms part of a regulatory framework that operates under the Broadcasting Services Act and comes within the purview of the Australian Communications and Media Authority. The Code states:
In broadcasting news and current affairs programs, licensees:
4.3.5 must not use material relating to a person’s personal or private affairs, or which invades an individual’s privacy, other than where there is an identifiable public interest reason for the material to be broadcast.
As reported by Matthew Moore in the Sydney Morning Herald Channel Seven dropped the principal claim of the public interest justification, that Mr Campbell used a ''taxpayer-funded car'' to visit the club, conceding that driving a car provided as part of a salary package to and from the club was not an issue of impropriety. News Director Peter Meakin said there were two other  justifications for  running the story - Mr Campbell was leading a double life unknown to his family, and had campaigned for election as a family man. These and the fact that Mr Campbell had served as police minister for 18 months up until September 2008 tipped the balance in favour of publication.
''If it's someone's private life and it does not impact on his job or potentially impact on his job, it's a private life, but if it impacts on his portfolio or potentially on the execution of his duties, I think it's a matter of public interest.''
Apart from the industry code if those involved in running the story at Seven are members of the MEAA, its code of ethics requires a journalist to "respect..personal privacy," a provision suitably vague and deserving closer examination of what it means in practice.

John Hartigan of News Limited observed in March last year that " the current media privacy framework is effective and working well." I think incidents since raise serious questions about this,. The Australian Law Reform Commission has recommended significant changes to the current system that gives media organisations an exemption from privacy legislation in favour of self regulatory schemes. The Commission has drawn attention to gaps, inconsistencies and weak enforcement provisions in these arrangements.

I'll have something to say about the separate issue of the Campbell outing and the proposed cause of action for breach of privacy in another post.

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