Am I wrong in thinking that there is a change coming in attitudes to the thing that so many in the community regard as an oxymoron: journalism ethics?

Former prime minister Paul Keating’s speech on the subject on Wednesday night was a cool, clear and, to my mind, unassailable argument for sensible privacy legislation.

This is something that some sections of the media universe, most notably News Limited boss John Hartigan and the Right to Know coalition, have argued against. They say that the current arrangements, in which media are subject to almost no restraint, are working well.

Keating’s speech made the words of media executives on this topic look like what they are — self-interested and short-sighted. This was not a colourful Keating snipe at his enemies, but a calm and considered intellectual case.

Keating argued media organisations should acknowledge that improvements are needed. “Instead of standing aggressively behind the status quo, dressed in the cloak of the Fourth Estate, they need to talk more about responsibility, more about the importance of ethics, more about improvement in the standards of journalism in all respects.”

They should work with, rather than against, the “modest reforms” proposed by the Australian Law Reform Commission, which recommend a continued exemption for media organisations for the Privacy Act, but subject to a more rigorous and policeable self regulation system.

Keating argued for a unified arrangement for media ethics and standards. This is important, because there are other movements in this direction.

The former chairman of the Australian Press Council, Ken McKinnon, asked the publisher members that finance the council to consider making moves to expand its reach over broadcasting and online publications as well as print. He was rebuffed, but the idea has hardly gone away under the council’s new chairman, Julian Disney.

Meanwhile, the head of the Australian Communications and Media Authority, Chris Chapman, has been taking a more vigorous approach lately, working to lift that agencies processing of complaints to above a snail’s pace, and instituting inquiries on its own initiative as well as responding to complaints.

Some declarations before I continue. Keating, to my surprise, quoted extensively from my work as well as that of my colleague, Dr Denis Muller. He also gave a plug to the New News 2010 Conference at the Melbourne Writers Festival, which I, in my role as chair of the Public Interest Journalism Foundation at Swinburne University, have helped to organise.

Keating said he would like to be a “fly on the wall” at the session The Ethical Journalist Online, when Chapman, Disney and the ABC’s director of editorial standards, Paul Chadwick — the three men who together have most to do with policing journalism ethics, but who rarely speak to each other  — appear on the same platform for the first time. (Note to Keating. You could just buy a ticket.

As I have commented previously on Crikey, Hartigan and the Right to Know Coalition’s campaign has not been helped by the number of own goals kicked by News Limited newspapers on privacy issues. For example, the Pauline Hanson photos that were not Pauline Hanson, but that would have represented a gross invasion if they had been.

Then there is the Channel Seven decision to “out” NSW minister David Campbell’s private sex life.

I was interested to see, in this context, that The Australian‘s media editor recently argued against the approach of WikiLeaks by stating the obvious truth: that mainstream media exercises judgement and discretion every day in choosing what to publish.

This would be an unremarkable observation were it not for the fact that other sections of The Australian have argued the very opposite in defending their own conduct and that of  Channel Seven in recent times.

Media columnist Mark Day, for example, argued recently  in his discussion of the David Campbell case that the urge to publish and be damned was in editors’ DNA. I disliked his terminology. Editors are not genetically determined robots with no capacity for judgement.

Keating’s speech is part of several moves that together put pressure on editors to take more responsibility. To acknowledge those acts of judgement, and to heed ethical concerns.

Most arguments about media bias miss the point about the real, all pervasive and devastating bias of journalists. We are biased in favour of what looks like a story.

This makes us likely to see conspiracy where there is none, to put the most negative construction on collections of facts, and, of course, to exercise our judgement in favour of whatever suits the story.

Which means that privacy gives way and, as Keating observes, we interpret the public interest to mean whatever we judge the public to be interested in — which accords remarkably often with our own self-interest.

But we are not, and should not be publishing robots. We should be fearless in what we publish, because we can rigorously defend our decisions. We should be responsible, because we are so important. The media is unquestionably the most powerful single institution in society.

Keating’s speech is, I tentatively suggest, part of a new breeze. Too soon to call it a fresh wind. And of course, the mainstream media is a large and heavily powered boat.

Nevertheless,  media organisations would do well to trim their sails.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey

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