Crikey editor Misha Ketchell writes:

When it comes down
to it, journalism is a dirty job. It’s more like plumbing than any of
the high-minded professions which journalists like to compare
themselves to. It’s like plumbing because it involves digging, always
costs more, takes longer than anyone anticipated and usually ends up
uncovering a big mess. As any gossip columnist can tell you, public
interest hardly ever comes into it – it’s all about what people want to know.

Now it turns out even our inalienable right to prurience and schadenfreude is up for sale. In New York this week the New York Post’s longtime
Page Six staffer Jared Paul Stern has been caught extorting $100,000
from a West Coast billionaire investor, Ron Burkle, not to write nasty
things about him.

Perhaps as a News Corp employee who was
already taking money from one multi-billionaire in exchange for not
writing unpleasant things about him and his friends, Stern reasoned the
shakedown wouldn’t be a bridge too far. He was wrong, but as the New York Daily News reveals, along the way he provided a rare glimpse of the philosophical realities underpinning the real information economy:

Nine days earlier, at a lengthy meeting at the same table,
Stern had guaranteed he could manage coverage of Burkle by Page Six
chief writer Richard Johnson and other Page Six staffers — and have
false items about Burkle killed.

“It’s a little like the
Mafia. A friend of mine is a friend of yours,” Stern had said,
detailing how Burkle and others could get various “levels of
protection” in return for favours and other consideration.

The
art of writing scurrilous things about people in the public eye took
another hit this week when British MP George Galloway outed Mazher
Mahmood – the News of the World’s investigative reporter who
has made his name dressing as an Arab and tricking his celebrity
victims into self incriminating comments or actions. As Stephen Glover observes in The Independent:

So Mr Galloway has wreaked his revenge by distributing
photographs of Mahmood, who relies on his anonymity. Almost
unbelievably, the News of the World took out an injunction,
claiming that Mahmood had received death threats, and would be put at
risk if his identity were widely known. Mr Justice Mitting rejected
this specious line of argument, saying that the true purpose of the
application was not so much to safeguard Mahmood as “the protection of
his earnings capability and publication of his investigative
journalism, and his utility to his employers in that respect”.

This
episode illustrates how newspapers, in defence of their own interests,
are prepared to resort to measures that they decry when they are used
against them. People normally take out injunctions against the News of the World, not the other way around.

Back in Australia, as Media Watch
reported last night, our new defamation laws mean that Australian
journalists no longer have to prove that their stories are in the
public interest – just that they are true.

So now we’re perfectly free to tell you what a court has found the Sun Herald
shouldn’t have told you when it published a story – before the law
changed – about what Shari-Lee Hitchcock got up to at a party with
billionaire businessman Richard Pratt. Now that’s a matter of public
interest.

Peter Fray

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