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Mar 26, 2009

Hanson photo affair undermines the right to know

The editors of the tabloids that ran the 'Hanson' photographs knew exactly why they were publishing these pics and I am certain the reason had nothing to do with serving the public interest, writes Michael Gawenda.

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Credit where it’s due — the Right To Know Coalition, which is made up of representatives of virtually every mainstream media organisation in the country, would not have got off the ground without the energy and commitment and financial support of News Limited and its boss, John Hartigan. Without Hartigan’s commitment there would have been no report by former Human Rights Commissioner Irene Moss into the impediments and roadblocks to a free press in Australia. Her report is well worth reading. It should be sobering for journalists and those in the wider community who might think journalists in Australia are properly able to hold to account those who have the power to make life-changing decisions that affect all of us.

That said — and yes, pompously so, for we journalists tend to get pompous when we talk about our role as the guardians of liberal democracy — the fact is that, as far as I can tell, the Right to Know Coalition has produced no groundswell of community outrage at the fact that journalists are severely hampered in all sorts of ways in properly carrying out their vital to democracy duties. The Moss report sank without a trace. Indeed, it received little coverage by many of the media organisations that commissioned it.

I doubt that many journalists even read it — let alone people in the wider community. I doubt that too many politicians read it and if they did, I doubt that any of them were left shaken by its finding and determined to remove the impediments to public interest journalism that Moss laid out in great detail.

Why is that? This is where the naked photographs of Pauline Hanson that proved to be not of Pauline Hanson come in. Now perhaps I am too thick to see all the nuances of the photos fiasco, but for this old journalist and editor, it seems to me that there are no nuances. For a start, there was absolutely no public interest served — apart from prurience — by publishing these photographs. None. For editors of News Limited papers and some of their columnists to pretend otherwise, or to pretend that this was a complicated and ethically difficult issue is disheartening — but predictable. It suggests that they believe their readers are morons. The editors of the tabloids that ran the Hanson photographs knew exactly why they were publishing these pics and I am certain the reason had nothing to do with serving the public interest.

This means that all the mindless nonsense about whether the photographs were of Hanson was just obfuscation, though it did reveal the breathtaking lack of rigor and proper investigation before publication of stuff like this that seems to be acceptable on some newspapers. This is not, as John Hartigan has suggested, about journalists and editors being fallible and making honest mistakes: this is about the culture that produces this sort of journalism.

I fear that for most people, the Right to Know Coalition — if they think about it at all — is just a group of self-serving media types who want to publish and broadcast whatever they damn well feel will sell papers or boost ratings and that all this talk of the media’s role in safe-guarding democracy is just so much claptrap. I would bet that most people reckon the media already has too much freedom and power and that something ought to be done to pull the bastards down a peg or two.

This is unfair but sadly understandable. The fact is that until we journalists mount a compelling case that we operate on certain agreed ethical principles, that we are open to criticism, that we understand that we have to be accountable for what we do, there will be no support for the removal of those very real impediments that the law and politicians have put in place to evade scrutiny of their actions. Until we have real self-criticism of our work, which means independent and fearless media reporting and commentary — and at the moment, such reporting and commentary does not exist in the mainstream media, apart from perhaps the 15 minutes a week of Media Watch — the Right To Know Coalition is pissing in the wind. Until newspapers and other media appoint ombudsmen, independent editors who are there to investigate complaints from readers and others about the way stories are reported, the Right to Know Coalition will go nowhere.

Both The New York Times and The Washington Post have ombudsmen who are appointed for a two-year period after which they have to move on, leave the paper. They report to the publisher and the papers’ editors do not even get to see their reports before they are published. When I was Editor of The Age, I once suggested to senior editors that what we should do is every now and then, go back to a story we have covered and ask the people we reported on what they thought of our coverage and how it affected them and their lives. The consensus around the table was that this would cause huge concern amongst our journalists who would see it as evidence of my lack of trust in their professionalism and their ethical standards. I should have insisted, but I didn’t. There were, I thought, more pressing issues to deal with. I was wrong.

I was not at the Right To Know Conference in Sydney, but I bet none of the issues of accountability that I have raised here were discussed. Instead, the conference seemed to focus solely on the proposed privacy legislation and the impact of such legislation on journalism. I think there are some real issues for journalism here, but until we deal with the question of why we are held in such low regard, most people — and importantly most politicians — will think that privacy legislation that limits the ability of newspapers to publish those not-Hanson photographs is a very good idea indeed.

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