Labor MPs are calling for tougher media regulation and new privacy laws after revelations that Channel Nine aired an ex-prostitute’s claims against Craig Thomson even though she had recanted her story.

The former prostitute, who had accepted an offer of $60,000 to tell her story to A Current Affair, appeared on Channel Seven’s Today Tonight last night to apologise to Thomson for having claimed she had slept with him.

A Current Affair reported on May 24 that it had a statutory declaration from a former prostitute stating she had had sex with Thomson in 2005. What reporter Justin Armsden didn’t tell viewers was that the women had told him three days earlier that she was not a “credible witness” and wanted to retract her statement. She now says her claims were simply a case of “mistaken identity”.

Labor MP Steve Gibbons told Crikey that A Current Affair‘s behaviour had been “appalling” and demonstrated the need for tougher penalties for media outlets that deliberately deceive viewers.

“Airlines are grounded for breaching standards; doctors are suspended for breaching standards,” he said. “I’m suggesting that if the media authority had teeth it could invoke a suspension on an outlet for deliberately putting to air what they know is false.

“ACMA has been a toothless tiger since it was established. The Press Council is hopeless. We need a body with teeth that can bring dodgy media outlets to heel. If you’re going to do a story that could destroy lives, livelihoods or bring a government down and it’s wrong, you need to be severely dealt with.”

Gibbons suggested TV networks could be forced to suspend programming for 24 hours when egregious breaches of journalistic standards occur.

Government whip Joel Fitzgibbon told the ABC’s AM this morning: “I would characterise what went to air last night as extraordinary, and regardless of all the facts, this sort of journalism is not the right path for Australia.

“We expect high standards of our media and this is why the government needs to act to enforce those higher standards … There are key initiatives in the pipeline, the establishment of a privacy (watchdog) and greater government regulation of our media. I think this gives weight to the government for pursuing those initiatives with a great deal of enthusiasm.”

Peter Meakin, Channel Seven’s head of news and current affairs, was rising above it today. He told Crikey that “our campaign against even tighter media regulation is not assisted by grubby ACA stories about Craig Thomson and  Clive James”.

“I find it hard to identify any positives in the way A Current Affair ‘presented’ the story,” he wrote via email. “They promoted their interview with gusto, then failed to deliver … The case highlights the problem of paying anyone to make allegations about another person’s reputation. A cheque, large or small, casts doubts on the informant’s motivation.”

Today Tonight‘s scoop has sparked a vicious tit-for-tat between the tabloid TV rivals, with producers from both programs taking to the airwaves this morning to accuse their competitors of shoddy journalism.

ACA executive producer Grant Williams told 3AW’s Neil Mitchell that his program had “done the right thing” and acted with “complete transparency”.

He said the woman backed out of the interview when she realised the magnitude of the story: “She said ‘I’m still sure that it’s him, but I can’t go through with this. I don’t want the government on my doorstep for the rest of my life’.”

He then went on to boast that Today Tonight‘s ratings had bombed last night despite its interview and accused his rival of “hypocrisy that beggars belief”.

Judging by ACA‘s Facebook page, however, viewers are far from impressed by the way the program behaved.

“Appalling stuff ACA and Ch9,” wrote Peter Harris. “No rating is worth playing with people’s lives like this. Time for regulation and truth in the media. Time for licences to be revoked.”

“What a disgrace,” wrote Cameron Burge. “How can the producer of that segment, the reporter and the EP still have a job on the program? You’re beneath contempt. Why did you run the story if you knew she had recanted? Are you that keen to see Thomson out of parliament? Is that what it’s about? Or is it just ratings? The only thing which comes close to the contempt which I feel for you people is the disappointment in myself that I was surprised you’d stoop that low.”

The former pr-stitute, who has not been identified, did not receive payment for last night’s appearance on Today Tonight and was not paid by Channel Nine because her A Current Affair interview was never aired.

ACA‘s Williams and Armsden were contacted by Crikey this morning but both refused to answer questions.

Peter Fray

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