Dear Crikey,

Let’s analyse Michael Gawenda’s piece yesterday that claimed the Right to Know coalition is self serving, does not address the media’s accountability, and held a conference devoted to privacy on Tuesday without acknowledging the Pauline Hanson saga.

The best way to examine these claims is to use Gawenda’s own arguments that “I bet none of the issues of accountability I have raised here were discussed (at the conference)”.

He bets does he? Is that code for fact checking and objectivity?

Privacy was not the sole focus of the Right to Know conference as Gawenda claims. It was one of nine sessions. The 90 minute session on Privacy was only part of the 6.5 hour program not including pit stops or lunch.

Gawenda would have known this if a) he had attended b) watched it on live on APAC c) spoken to anyone who was there d) even checked out the conference program at www.australiasrighttoknow.com.au.

Perhaps if Gawenda had applied these basic principles he might be in a position to criticise The Sunday Telegraph for the same sins. Gawenda rightly praises John Hartigan as the driving force behind Right to Know but he is wrong about the Hanson saga. Hartigan made it plain that the Hanson story was a mistake in his opening address to the conference — something that The Age reported on sensibly and fairly the next day. In fact Hartigan’s comments were widely reported in print, online, on radio and television.

If Gawenda’s claim that the Right to Know agenda is self serving and the Moss Report “sank without trace” perhaps Gawenda can explain how it is that since Right to Know was formed in 2007:

  • The Federal Government has produced draft legislation to overhaul FoI and a bill to abolish conclusive certificates?
  • The Qld Government is now in the final stages of drafting its new FoI legislation having commissioned a massive report by Dr David Solomon and undertaken widespread consultation?
  • The NSW Government has committed to overhauling its FoI regime?
  • The Federal Parliament has produced a report recommending changes to whistleblower laws?The Federal Attorney General has proposed new shield laws for journalists which are now subject to review by a Senate Committee?
  • The Federal Government is committed to reforming the use of suppression orders by courts?
  • There has been renewed public attention on these issues and continuing interest in the cases involving Alan Kessing, McManus and Harvey, Dr Jayant Patel etc etc etc.

As for Gawenda’s contention that there is no real self-criticism of what the media does, what planet is he on? One thing the media’s obsession with itself produces is in fact an excess of criticism of the media, not a lack of it. Can anyone name a day — any day will do — when criticism of the media doesn’t appear in the media? Is there a decent bookshop in the country that doesn’t routinely stock many recent books critical of the media including The Content Makers and The Media We Deserve?

Right to Know claimed at its launch that the freedoms it seeks carry onerous responsibilities, a point made again several times at the conference this week. We also say, quite openly, that the media clearly does not get it right all the time. This does not make our aim to reform the system we have now illegitimate, hypocritical or unimportant.

Perhaps we should now add to the many causes for alarm, the fact that Gawenda is director of a centre devoted to “advanced journalism”. But, I sincerely hope not because we need more informed debate about the media not less, and I believe many want Gawenda to make a really valuable contribution — next time.