Leslie Cannold in The Age online today wheels out the good old cliché deployed any time the media come under attack for anything: “Are we shooting the messenger”?

The question is raised over Channel 7’s conduct in publishing material from the medical records of two AFL players.

The idea of “shooting the messenger” carries an implication that somehow Channel 7 was merely a passive conduit through which this information became public, and that if anyone were to be shot it should be someone else.

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When a media outlet makes a decision to publish, it is not just a messenger. It is also creates the message and controls the context and language in which it is presented.

This lies at the core of media power – the power to create the reality on which most people depend most of the time for information about what is going on in the world, and the power to decide how events or people will be presented to the public. The existence of that power provides the legitimacy for demanding accountability by the media for how the power is used.

Exerting accountability by criticising Channel 7 for an egregious invasion of privacy, a shoddy exercise in chequebook journalism in which the reporter took at face value the claim that the records had been found in a gutter, and the channel’s possible involvement in a criminal offence, is hardly “shooting the messenger”.

Dr Cannold also raises the question of whether Channel 7 got the balance right between respecting the players’ privacy and their duty to act in the public interest.

On the public-interest question, Channel 7 has shown itself to be unsure exactly what the public-interest argument is.

Its Melbourne News Director, Steve Carey, claimed that the public interest lay in exposing drug abuse among players who are role models for children.

Its head of news and current affairs, Peter Meakin, also provided the same justification when interviewed on Media Watch. However, he later said that the primary issue was drugs in sport. Either way, he said, these so-called public-interest considerations outweighed the players’ right to privacy.

Late yesterday, Seven backed down, announcing it would not seek to publish or re-publish any details from the case and expressing its sincere regret for any damage caused.

But how the revealing of the medical records of two players says anything about the breadth of drugs in sport or about the success or failure of the AFL’s drug policy is impossible to know.

In fact it may turn out to be counter to the public interest because it may have undermined players’ faith in the confidentiality of the AFL’s drug treatment processes, and discourage them from coming forward.

Where so gross a breach of individual rights is involved, the public interest argument must be strong and clear-cut. Here it is non-existent.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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