It’s an article of faith for journalists and most others in the media industry: privacy laws are bad and therefore, implicitly, bad for freedom of the press.

Which is why the chorus of media industry response to this week’s Australian Law Reform Commission’s recommendations for new laws that would give people the right to sue for invasion of privacy all comes from the same well-worn hymn sheet.

A chorus led by The Right to Know Coalition, an organisation made up of media groups like Fairfax, News and the ABC — lustily supported by battle-weary protaganists like media lawyer Peter Bartlett (who also happens to advise Crikey on litigious matters) — today argued in The Age that “the recommendation to introduce a tort of privacy could be likened to hitting a nut with a sledgehammer”.

But at the risk of questioning a venerated sacred cow — and at the risk of muddying one’s own patch — isn’t it legitimate to ask whether the media is on solid ground when it continues to rage against all and any kind of privacy limitations?

Of course, most sensible people would oppose privacy laws that could stifle exposure of corruption or improper behaviour by politicians, public officials and others who affect the viability of the democratic process. But do most sensible people also support the right of photographers to stalk celebrities, of reporters to expose the s-x lives of non-entities or of News of The World journalists to plant a video camera in a pr-stitute’s bra in order to film the s-xual habits of a sports entrepreneur.

The problem here is of context and proportionality. In the Watergate context, any restraint on media investigation is appalling. In the News of the World context, it is difficult to defend either the media’s behaviour, its ethics or its arguments for legal protection to invade privacy.

A completely responsible media would have no trouble eliciting widespread support for conducting its fourth estate role with vigour. In the absence of such a beast, it’s getting much harder to reject the alternate view — as articulated today by the president of the Australian Council for Civil Liberties, Terry O’Gorman — that the “so-called right to know” has been “elevated in some quarters into the right to do anything”.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey

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