For lovers of first class hypocrisy, there is no better fun than watching
a catfight in the whorehouse of journalism over ethics. Although for pure
entertainment value, listening in on a dinner table conversation
between Courier-Mail editor David Fagan and Madonna King on the subject might
just top it.
Brisbane
barrister Bob Myers was in the rare position of speaking with both Fagan and
King on Monday last week and got two different takes on the subject from either
side of the Brisbane media’s “first family.”

But before
getting to the delicious details, some context. This latest round of media
posturing about ethics flows from the decision by Australian Story to run its
story on one of the Bali Nine, Scott Rush, without detailing the lad’s troubled
youth.

The truth is of course, that journalism is an ethics-free zone, from top to
bottom. The only “ethic” that matters, when push comes to shove, is that
everyone does what it takes to get the story they want to flog in the media
marketplace.

Proprietors do deals with politicians and protect their big-end of town
mates, editors run barking mad agendas and the hacks plead for interviews
because they “only want to make sure your side of the story gets
out”.

But the glass house dwellers love nothing better than throwing a few
rocks at each other every now and then – it allows this most compromised of
professions (the oldest calling is at least honest about what it does) the
opportunity to pretend that noble work is being done, guided by lofty
principles.

And as it happens, there is a principle for every occasion, as Fagan and
King demonstrated, just hours apart for Myers, who has been doing some
legal-eagling for the Rush family. First, King came to his office for some fact
checking on the book about the drug mules she is writing with fellow News Limited
journalist Cindy Wockner.

That out of the
way, Myers was somewhat surprised to hear King warn him that lots of the
journalists covering the case in Bali knew about Rush’s record and that some of
the more “unscrupulous” among them might publish it. But I am aware of the
dangers this could present for Scott, King reassured, and I wouldn’t do that and
nor would Cindy. Principle at stake: irresponsible journalism can cost lives
when it adopts a publish or be damned approach. Benefit for King: she stays on
the right side of people to get the story she wants.

Later that day,
Myers then became aware that editor Fagan was proposing to publish Rush’s criminal record,
and phoned him, pleading with him not to, arguing that it could see Rush put
before a firing squad if he got a stiffer sentence on appeal. Fagan was having
none of it, the paper had a duty to fully inform the public. Principle at stake:
the public right to know. Benefit for Fagan: he gets to run the story he wants
to run.

As for the
public’s right to know, Rush’s record spoke of nothing more than a bog standard,
troubled youth. And
chances are Australian Story was not above making the odd compromise either,
although its focus was the conduct of the Australian Federal Police, not that
Rush was an innocent abroad. And guess what – they got the story they wanted
too.

Peter Fray

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