There has been an interesting battle waged out West between Sunday Times brethren, 6PR talkback host Paul “Mooner” Murray and the ABC’s Liam Bartlett.

Here’s what Bartlett wrote:

Perth Sunday Times

Edition 2 – CountrySUN 01 SEP 2002, Page 033

Name game is a radio shame

By Liam Bartlett

JOURNALISTIC ethics hit a new low in WA this week with the public “outing” of a former football star at the centre of sexual abuse allegations.

Despite a total absence of charges being laid or a conclusive police case being established beyond doubt, a high-profile media commentator made the decision to publish the name of the once high-profile athlete in order to gain cheap publicity.

That’s the only conclusion that can be drawn from this reckless action because any argument about benefit to the public interest does not stack up. There is no suggestion, even from his alleged victim, that the man represents a current threat to society or that any criminal act could be committed if he was not publicly identified. Ironically, the argument that led to his naming centres not on his potential guilt or innocence but on the process of police investigation.

There is the suspicion that he was never charged because he had a mate in the upper echelons of the police force.

This might be true and then, it might not. At this stage we simply do not know.

That it should be fully investigated at the police royal commission is beyond question but to tar and feather someone publicly before any of it can be challenged is reprehensible.

On the face of it, this respected former editor had the power to do it — so he did.

A selfish decision that led to a photograph on an eastern states-based news website, a headline in a Melbourne newspaper and, consequently, a national paper playing catch-up.

It was straight out of the Derryn Hinch survival manual — name and shame and forget about the sticky mud that might never be wiped off.

There will be the obvious cries of sour grapes over my criticism as the person responsible runs a radio program in competition with my own. But this has nothing to do with egotistical melodrama. It is about a person’s reputation and the principle of fairness and honesty, everything that goes with the foundation on which our justice system is built — the presumption of innocence.

High Court Justice Michael Kirby knows all about that.

Who could forget the claims of sexual misconduct involving minors that were thrown at him from the safety of Parliament earlier this year?

Claims that were, as it turns out, based on fabricated evidence and totally discredited, but not before they featured on the front page of just about every paper in Australia.

Those media outlets that have named the footballer have set themselves an extremely low benchmark.

Does it pass the gossip test? Would people be keen to know who it is? You can bet your life they would.

But does it pass a moral test? Is it the right and proper thing to do? Not on anyone’s life. And that’s exactly what we’re talking about — the potential for permanent damage to the life of the accused, regardless of guilt or innocence.

It’s the same warped logic that gives rise to the beginning of urban myths. Enough people name names and all of a sudden it must be true. The point is, the simple act of naming doesn’t give a story instant legitimacy nor does it confer credibility on those doing the naming.

Responsible journalism is more often about what not to say rather what can be said. In this case, opening a microphone and throwing this man’s name into the public maelstrom is the easy part.

Having to take full responsibility for it might be a bit harder. Why not, for example, name the convicted heroin dealer who banged his head against the wall at the royal commission and escaped a contempt charge?

No. Too dangerous and not enough headlines in it. In this case, it’s a calculated risk, weighted heavily in favour of the namer who must suspect that the likelihood of the former footballer suing him is very low.

This is not brain surgery. Obviously, in a defamation case, the first witness for the defence would probably be the woman making the abuse allegations.

And as the man’s lawyer already professes his client’s innocence, a confrontation such as this wouldn’t be terrific legal strategy. Unfortunately, though, the action also endangers a potential appearance at the royal commission.

In any reference to the commission, there is every possibility that a suppression order would be made in relation to the footballer, given the nature of the allegations. Too late for that now, you might say, and you would probably be right.

But tough luck if a publicity gimmick has hindered legal process. Footballer, ballerina or plumber — it makes no difference. It is wrong to name anyone from any walk of life until they have been charged with an offence, brought before a court of law or a royal commission.

* Liam Bartlett hosts the Statewide Morning Program on ABC Radio. Email: [email protected]

– Ends –

The Sunday Times then ran this extraordinary apology, published, of all places, in their editorial comment.

“Editorial comment

08sep02

THE Sunday Times accepts that Liam Bartlett’s column on this page of last week’s newspaper defamed fellow columnist and 6PR talkback host Paul Murray in several instances.

The Editor Brett McCarthy and the newspaper accept that, in particular, the accusation that Mr Murray named a high-profile athlete at the centre of child abuse allegations “to gain cheap publicity” was incorrect.

Likewise, this newspaper accepts Mr Murray did not name the athlete “recklessly” nor in an attempt to “tar and feather someone publicly”.

We accept that Mr Murray named the athlete not in his own self interests but only after careful consideration of the issues and in the belief it was a matter of deep public interest.

The newspaper further accepts that the naming of the athlete was not done as a publicity gimmick but as a piece of serious journalism.”

– Ends –

Here is our take on the whole affair from our sealed section of Tuesday 10 September:

“4. MOONER MURRAY VS LIAM BARTLETT

The Perth media scene is hard to fathom. You’ve got the most amazing legal and public spat between the city’s two top radio presenters and an extraordinary apology carried in The Sunday Times’s editorial yet no-one said boo about it today.

Let’s do the Perth media’s job for it.

All hell broke loose when Paul “Mooner” Murray named Barry Cable on his 6PR morning program as the retired AFL star under investigation for alleged sexual assault.

Now forget the ethical argument about whether or not Cable should have been named, Mooner’s ego has now become the story. Here are a few facts:

Back in 1999 when Mooner was still editor of The West Australian, he put a stop to any suggestion of carrying a story naming Cable in this context.

Fast forward three years and The West is sticking to this no-names line but Mooner decided to go all the way on his morning radio program. This was a tough call, you can argue the merits forever.

Over at the ABC, morning presenter Liam Bartlett disagreed vehemently, and wrote a very strong column in The Sunday Times saying so. Bartlett and Mooner appear as paid columnists on the same double page in Rupert’s profitable Sunday tabloid. Bartlett didn’t miss Mooner, refusing to name him in a move which was both a clever device and a mark of contempt.

Mooner reacted with a dummy spit which should have him installed as leader of the Democrats – that Sunday morning he was on 6PR declaring himself aggrieved at not being informed of the column, abusing other journalists who suggested he had a thick skin and declaring Liam to be “dumb” (is that defamatory?)

It didn’t stop there – Mooner was on a week off and spent much of it threatening The Sunday Times with legal action. Apparently editor Brett McCarthy, who spent 8 years learning how to be contemptuous of shock jocks under Col Allan, had ignored legal advice that Bartlett’s column was mildly defamatory. He wrongly assumed Murray would use his column and radio program to respond, not the courts.

McCarthy was weak ceding an apology, which was run in the EDITORIAL column – surely an Australian first. Apparently Murray threatened to quit and sue – his bluff should have been called. In McCarthy’s defence, he’d ignored legal advice and Murray would have had no qualms using his 6PR slot to bag The Sunday Times at every turn for as long as he lived – Mooner scorned is a very ugly sight.

Let’s put this in perspective – Murray has been a senior journalist for 30 years and an editor for 10 years. He has never had any qualms about using robust and vigorous journalism to target public figures – nor should he. Yet a relatively mild spray from Liam has him squealing like a stuck pig.

Apparently his meeting with McCarthy was a corker – Mooner rocked up in tracky dacks and unshaven claiming his week off had been ruined and his reputation destroyed – “woe is me” stuff.

As for the complaint he should have been warned about Bartlett’s spray – why? Does Murray give his victims 30 minutes advance warning on his daily sprays – of course not.

Murray has been on the Press Council and regularly rails against Australia’s ridiculous defamation laws and appears on panels with fellow doyens. The true test of these types of things is how you respond when they affect you – Mooner’s has been roughly the equivalent of a four year old bully.

Then again, he works for the same company as Steve Price. But Mooner could hardly have used 3AW’s [email protected] because they value News Ltd as a lucrative client.

The irony in all this is that Barry Cable’s lawyers are planning the mother of all defamation actions against Mooner.

Now can someone please tell the Perth media to get onto the story about free speech campaigner Paul Murray spitting the dummy and calling in the lawyers. It’s a cracking yarn and you timid Perth hacks should get out there and call a spade a spade.”

Peter Fray

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