Respect for privacy on the one hand and the public interest in freedom of expression and the community’s right to be informed on the other often involve a difficult balancing act for journalists and media organisations. While clear cut in most instances, in others it’s a bit like looking for a fine line in a blurry world

Events in the UK have sparked lively interest in the topic here. Media bosses assure us blatant disregard for the law is not part of the local scene but a broad-based inquiry into the media is in the offing. The government has announced a public consultation on whether it should legislate a general right to legal action for a serious and unwarranted invasion of privacy.

Media organisations were granted an exemption when federal legislation dealing with information privacy rights and obligations was extended to the private sector in 2000. The exemption is for acts and practices undertaken in the course of journalism. It was conditional on a media organisation demonstrating a public commitment to standards that deal with privacy, thus relegating it to a management and professional conduct issue.

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Most print media publishers gain exemption status through membership and the consequent commitment to Australian Press Council standards. The commercial and national broadcasters operate co-regulatory schemes in conjunction with the Australian Communications and Media Authority.

The Australian Law Reform Commission 2008 report on privacy called for changes to ensure media standards dealing with privacy not only exist but are robust in providing adequate protection. The commission also reminded that the commitment to the standards required more than merely lip service.

Despite “ongoing concern about the capacity of a self-regulatory system to preserve the balance between the public interest in freedom of expression and the public interest in adequately safeguarding the handling of personal information”, the commission recommended continuation of the exemption.

Neither the government nor industry bodies have responded publicly to this part of the report.

Other commentators go further than the commission in pointing to weaknesses in the system. For example, that the press council, despite the current majority of public members, lacks independence from proprietors on whom it is financially dependent, has few resources to promote the standards, limited powers to initiate an own motion investigation and none to impose penalties for breaches or other non-compliance.

Margaret Simons and Michael Smith have each raised questions in Crikey recently about the content of journalism ethics and values statements, the extent to which journalists, editors and executives are bound, the general lack of knowledge, awareness, education, training and enforcement, and the absence of practical guidance on the difficult questions. Experienced media hands such as David Salter and academics including Denis Muller, of Swinburne, have been making similar points for years.

In the current context, Julian Disney, chairman of the Australian Press Council, has expressed concern about some local media practices, suggesting conduct in the print media, radio and television industries warranted closer examination. Disney mentioned in particular the possibility that private investigators had been used to gather personal information. “I’m as concerned … not only about how the information is obtained, but about the use to which information is put,” Disney added. He also questioned the sectoral approach that forms the basis of current arrangements, indicating a preference for an industry-wide approach that would better reflect the convergence that is blurring distinctions between print and online publication.

It’s all a far cry from 2009 when News Limited chairman and chief executive John Hartigan said media arrangements to safeguard privacy were effective and working well.

The ALRC recommendations and other criticisms of the self-regulatory arrangements call for answers from the media industry that might go some way to restoring trust of the kind lost forever in the case of  News of the World, and reflected here in the low standing of journalists.

Newspaper journalists in the 2011 Roy Morgan image of the professions survey were 27 on the list of 30 professions for honesty and ethical standards, rated highly by just 11%. Talkback radio and television announcers fared marginally better. Nurses top the poll every year on 90%.

*Peter Timmins is a lawyer who writes the Open and Shut blog. He was deputy chair of the 2008 Independent Audit of Free Speech commissioned by Australia’s Right to Know but has had no involvement since that time.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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