In the absence of any evidence to show there was a public interest in publishing the medical records of two AFL players, it appears that Channel Seven and its reporter Dylan Howard are in breach of both the television industry’s code of practice and the code of ethics of the journalism profession.
Paragraph 4.3.5 of the industry code says that licensees 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 in broadcasting the material.
Clause 11 of the profession’s code of ethics says that journalists must respect private grief and personal privacy.
Medical records are about as private as it gets, except for intimate personal correspondence. It follows that the publishing of them must serve an equivalently strong public interest.
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On what we know at the moment, there is no public interest at all in the publication of this material, and Channel Seven has not argued so far that there is. Perhaps an argument will emerge when the matter comes before the Victorian Supreme Court again, probably on Thursday.
On Friday the court issued an injunction restraining further publication. The reasons have not been published yet.
Gross though it appears to be, the breach of privacy is only one of the ethical issues raised by the conduct of Channel Seven and Dylan Howard in this matter.
Another concerns the channel’s decision to pay a reported $3000 for the information, and the steps it took prior to publication to verify the legitimacy of the means by which it had been obtained, and its authenticity.
Paying for information –so-called chequebook journalism – raises many ethical questions, including why the informant wants payment in the first place, how reliable it might be, and whether the fact that it was purchased should be disclosed to the audience.
We are not going to get answers to these questions any time soon because two people have now been charged with theft in relation to medical documents reported stolen from a rehabilitation centre.
Dylan Howard has been quoted as saying he took at face value the claim of his source that she had found the documents in a gutter outside a medical clinic in Ivanhoe, a north-eastern suburb of Melbourne. This indicates that little was done to verify the legitimacy or authenticity of the material.
Channel Seven was asked to provide for use in this article its editorial policies concerning paying for information, verifying the legitimacy of the means by which it had been obtained, and authenticating its contents prior to publication.
The Australian Communications and Media Authority, which has ultimate responsibility for holding television licensees to account for breaches of the industry code, was also asked whether it was investigating the case.
At the time of publication, neither had responded. Any responses will be added as soon as possible after they are received.
*Dr Muller is a Visiting Fellow in the Centre for Applied Philosophy and Public Ethics at the University of Melbourne.