PR flaks buzzed anxiously as Crikey arrived at the University of Melbourne’s Carrillo Gantner lecture theatre last night to witness PJ Keating lay down a well-researched speech on the Australian media’s notorious allergy to privacy.

As the country’s 24th PM gasbagged with Vice Chancellor Glyn Davis, Centre for Advanced Journalism chief Michael Gawenda warned the audience about the exhaustive analysis to come, chortling that “if you haven’t had a comfort stop, you’ll need one at the end,” before Keating shuffled to the front to slam News Limited and deliver a 17-page plea to reform Australia’s hodge-podge of media snoop laws.

This was a no-nonsense restatement of the country’s shortcomings on privacy — that, given News’ obsession with pointless and ineffectual self-regulation, was both well overdue and getting worse.

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Keating started big, quoting privacy’s intellectual forbears Warren and Brandeis on the “right of the individual to be let alone” and universal charters on civil and political rights. Those concerns were lined up against the modern day perils of Google StreetView, “peek and seek provisions” and data mining by business and government.

The current toothless triptych of the publisher-funded Australian Press Council, the Australian Communication and Media Authority and internal union processes has meant that complaints almost never get up, and sanctions are never enacted. Self regulation was a joke, with the “everything is working well” line bleated by News supremo John Hartigan and his Right to Know coalition utterly indefensible. Keating said it was telling that amid all the failed attempts at self-policing the one accountability mechanism that stood out was Media Watch.

Serious opprobrium was reserved for former Sunday Telegraph deputy editor (and current Woman’s Weekly editor) Helen McCabe who, in the aftermath of the Pauline Hanson debacle,  famously chirped that the public interest was anything her readers might find interesting.

Other potentially actionable incidents, including the Tele‘s decision to run photos of Sonny Bill Williams and actress Candice Falzon’s toilet tryst and Adam Walters’ report on David Campbell exiting Kens of Kensington using a “taxpayer-funded vehicle” (an hypocrisy pointed out by Crikey hours after the story appeared).

Tellingly, no News Limited publications decided to report Keating’s comments this morning, despite editors and journalists being provided with copies of the speech well in advance of their deadlines yesterday.

The former PM’s renewed interest in privacy was almost certainly piqued by an outrageous Sunday Telegraph piece last November, that claimed his lobbyist daughter Katherine had threatened to “kill” a News Limited photographer while dressed as Amy Winehouse at an Absolut Vodka Halloween party.

Crikey understands that Keating has been fastidious in his desire to wrap an intellectual framework around his anger ever since.

The day after the offending report Keating used Fairfax newspapers to assail News, prompting a war of words with Hartigan who said it was “difficult to stomach the hypocrisy of Paul Keating”. Last night, Keating hit back, making special mention of the News chief on four separate occasions.

Keating turned Hartigan’s words from last year back on himself: “The hypocrisy, to use a John Hartigan phrase, is ‘stomach-churning’,” he demurred.

Other senior News figures also came in for a bollocking, with in-house lawyer Justin Quill questioned over his take on the Herald Sun‘s decision to run Brendan Fevola’s camera-phone picture of Lara Bingle on its front page.

Later, he took time out to rib Julia Gillard with a hint of nasal delivery in the “moving forward” part of the address.

In terms of restitution, Keating was specific. In addition to the ALRC’s legal fixes, he outlined a 5-point plan for proprietors to pull their finger out. “Media organisations”, Keating said, “need to consider whether thrashing serious breaches of privacy with a warm lettuce should continue to be all that their self-regulatory systems can deliver.”

An urgent priority was a re-read of the Commission’s mostly ignored 3-volume 2008 report on the issue (and a separate NSW Law Reform Commission Report), which cautiously recommended the adoption of a statutory recourse — but was mocked by News Limited and its portentous ‘Right to Know’ coalition as unworkable.

Amusingly, another luminary who has also been struggling with the perils of media intrusion was also present last night. With seconds to spare, Jeanne Pratt was escorted to the front of the lecture theatre, her interest presumably triggered by a series of invasive stories following the death of her litigious husband.

A number of pieces prying into the Pratts’ deepest secrets have emerged in recent weeks, including this Michael Bachelard spray on July 25 which was basically a hits and memories account of past foibles that have previously appeared in The Australian‘s business section.

The privacy debate will continue next week, when Crikey publisher Eric Beecher, Herald Sun overlord Phil Gardner and impressive Q&A fill-in host Virginia Trioli reconvene at Melbourne University to mull whether any of Keating’s prescriptions should be enshrined in law.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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