The Australian Communications and Media Authority has applied some baffling logic in its decision to exonerate the Seven Network over the outing of the former NSW Transport Minister David Campbell.
Let’s recap the timeline: last May the Seven Network revealed that Campbell regularly frequented a gay bar in Sydney. It put the allegations to the minister who resigned and apologised just before the report went to air. The story became an instant hit on the syllabus of countless university ethics classes because it throws up so many red-hot issues.
ACMA concluded that Seven had “clearly used material relating to Campbell’s personal and private affairs when it showed the minister leaving a gay club” but nevertheless the invasion of privacy was justified because the program was entitled to explain why he had resigned — even though the real reason was that Seven was just about to out him on national television.
In its defence, Seven made much of the risks that Campbell’s lifestyle posed for security and public administration. But it is ACMA’s apparent acceptance of this justification by Seven that seems perverse. This is from ACMA’s judgement, which sets out Seven’s case:
“Seven also notes that it did not broadcast any material concerning [the Minister] until [the Minister] had had a chance to consider it and chose to resign and apologise. At that point alone, there existed an additional public interest to broadcast information concerning his resignation, including his reasons for it and the circumstances in which it occurred.”
Seven is using the fact that it got Campbell’s scalp as proof that there was an additional public interest in reporting Campbell’s gay lifestyle. It’s a bit like saying. “We hunted him, we killed him, therefore we were justified in killing him.” Sure, Campbell’s resignation suggests that he accepted that what he was doing was not compatible with being a minister, but it certainly doesn’t give a justification for reporting the story because it was the imminent broadcast of Seven’s story that triggered his resignation in the first place.
ACMA appears to have adopted this logic. In its press release outlining the details of the decision it said:
“In this case, the resignation of the Minister meant that the broadcast, which would otherwise have been an invasion of privacy, was justified, but solely because it provided a deeper explanation of the circumstances behind the resignation.”
So the fact that the imminent broadcast of the story was successful in hounding Campbell from office meant that we needed to have an explanation why he had gone, which in turn became the justification for Seven invading his privacy?
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As the head of ACMA, Chris Chapman, told PM last week:
Given the existing public criticism of the minister and a lot of prior questioning about the discharge of his office; given the sensitive public roles he’d held, and indeed recently held, I think the suddenness of his resignation and cutting to the chase, the lack of insight that the explanation for his resignation provided, i.e. he said for personal reasons.
As a result of those unique circumstances a relevant, legitimate public interest arose and we ultimately got comfortable with that explanation of public interest.
In its defence Seven also argued:
“The vast majority of the media coverage which followed the news report suggests that it in fact provoked a very sympathetic view of [the Minister] and the fact that he felt compelled for so many years to lead a ‘double life’. Seven is unaware of any person who reacted to its news report with feelings so strong as ‘intense dislike’ or ‘serious contempt” for [the minister] on the grounds of his s-xual preference.”
Here Seven appears to be using our revulsion of its reporting (and the resulting sympathy for Campbell) as evidence that its report did not target him on the grounds of his s-xual orientation. This is extraordinary. It has confused what it did — hounded a guy because he was involved in gay s-x — with our reaction to the sleazy way in which it did it.
What’s missing in all of this is an analysis of Seven’s motives. Seven has constructed a post hoc argument about public interest to justify what it did. It has cynically taken advantage of some important maxims of media freedom to justify what was a sleazy report and it has been cleared by ACMA because there are severe implications for free speech if it punishes the network. But I suspect Seven’s motives were not pure. The initial report was more about muck raking than defending the public interest, as Media Watch’s dissection of the dissembling by Seven reveals.