Kicking at the cornerstone of democracy The State of Press Freedom in Australia 2012
Just whose interest is it anyway? Richard Ackland
Cartoon by Jenny Coopes
“That’s for our readers to tell. That will be determined by the number of people that buy the paper.” So said the deputy editor of The Sunday Telegraph, Helen McCabe, when asked by Media Watch in 2009 what was the public interest in her paper publishing those pouty photos of a young Pauline Hanson, in lingerie. Except, as it expensively transpired, it was not Pauline Hanson. It’s not the first time journalists boldly have conflated the public interest with the circulation of newspapers. The blurring of the public interest with what journalists and editors calculate is interesting to the public has an elemental appeal. Five News Limited Sundays stumped up $15,000 between them to buy the snaps from a former soldier, who claimed to have been Hanson’s lover in the 1970s. The case for News Limited didn’t improve when Sunday Herald Sun columnist Robyn Riley opined, on March 15, 2009: “Public people are public property whether they like it or not. If Ms Hanson expects to be elected at this month’s Queensland elections to represent the people in the seat of Beaudesert, then her ideals, opinions, behaviour and beliefs must be scrutinised.” The Seven Network also clutched the public interest to its manly bosom in an effort to justify a story in 2010 about the then NSW minister for transport, David Campbell, visiting for two hours a men-only gay club and steam facility known as Ken’s at Kensington. In fact, a series of public interests were advanced in an effort to justify this invasion of the victim’s privacy. They were wheeled out in succession, each one collapsing under the weight of its own stupidity. At first there was the public interest in the use of a ministerial car to drive from Macquarie Street to Ken’s on Anzac Parade. In fact, the use of the car was within the applicable guidelines. There was the possibility the minister might be blackmailed. That too didn’t wash. Then there was the public interest in the exposure of the minister’s hypocrisy because he also wanted to be seen as a good family man. The notion that a person couldn’t be a good and loving family man if they visited Ken’s at Kensington didn’t take long to evaporate completely. The only public interest, torturously conjured, was a public interest in knowing that Campbell had resigned from the ministry because Seven was about to air its story about him. The peculiar circularity of that justification appealed to the Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA), because that was the basis of its finding that the breach in this instance of the privacy provisions of the commercial TV code of practice was justified “in the public interest”. The Hanson and Campbell cases occupy firm places in journalism’s darker corners. Regardless of the special pleading by News Limited editors and columnists and the unfathomable logic of ACMA, few others recognised those two stories lay anywhere close to “the public interest”. It is not always so clear. At which end of the public interest spectrum lies the story The Age and Nationwide News wished to publish in 2006, revealing the identity of AFL players who tested positive at least once to the use of illicit drugs?