I used to think the image of bitter old-media dinosaurs railing against the frightening freedoms of the internet was a tired cliche. Can there really be such anger, such blind us-and-them? But on Friday I was shown that there can be and is.

Discussions at the “Privacy in the 21st Century” symposium organised by the Communications Law Centre at the University of Technology Sydney even saw the chair of the Australian Press Council, Professor Julian Disney, complain that there’s too much freedom of speech.

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“You don’t have real freedom of speech if you’re buried in a cacophony of irrelevant and vitriolic comment streams. That’s why a lot of serious people are pulling out from comment streams,” Disney said. Serious news publishers want to avoid the inevitable “welter of defamatory, vitriolic, abusive comments”.

“It’s caused by excessive abuse of freedom of speech by the people that are coming into those streams and not being properly moderated,” he said.

Disney called for us to “get real” about “the realities of freedom of speech” and the need to share this freedom as equitably as we can: “I don’t mean the same to everyone, I’m not that unrealistic, but far more equitably than we do now. Some people actually have an excess of freedom of speech in this country, and are exercising it in a way which is hurting others and limiting their ability to exercise their freedom of speech.” Applause soon followed.

Yes, those terrible internet commenters are coming into comment threads and threatening the freedom of speech of the media giants. Apparently it’s irrelevant that some online communities have been running for years without descending into a shitfight and the media giants have failed to learn from them.

Disney also railed against social media campaigners who often “know nothing about what they’re talking about”.

I suppose it was inevitable that a conference which kicked off with Lord Justice Leveson speaking in the wake of his report on the UK’s phone hacking debacle would focus on privacy in the context of traditional media outlets invading the privacy of ordinary citizens in the course of producing their tabloid outputs. It was also inevitable that traditional journalists spoke passionately against any new restrictions on their own work.

“My view is that the push for what is commonly referred to as statutory privacy tort is a dangerous overreaction that relies for much of its support on what’s best described as cultural cringe,” said Chris Merritt, The Australian‘s legal affairs editor. Australia is not the UK, Merritt argued, and most of the problems with invasion of privacy here have been the work of tabloid television, not respectable newspapers — and TV is already meant to be regulated by ACMA.

His colleague, distinguished media commentator Mark Day, agreed: “We’re not dealing with a huge problem, and I think we’ve got to keep that in mind as we look at these issues.

“I’m not in favour of a privacy law which in any way, shape or form extends the nature of restrictions on our media … News events are news events, and sometimes in life you get lucky and sometimes you can be unlucky … Sometimes through no fault of your own you’re thrust into a position where you will capture the attention of journalists and camera people.”

But I was shocked that such scant attention was paid to the very real risk to everyone’s privacy, the trade-off that nearly all of us have made, knowingly or not, of giving away vast amounts of personal information in exchange for trinkets of internet functionality or the tiny chance of winning an iPad. The trade-off that’s at the very heart of paying for media on the internet.

Some speakers got it. Greens Senator Scott Ludlam spoke with his usual quiet passion about data mining, the 300,000 and more warrantless requests by law enforcement for communications data, and the continuing push for internet service providers to log all our online interactions.

Even Day made a passing reference: “I, like the rest of you, have concerns about how my data is being used and reused and monetised and all those things.”

“I just wish that every time I rang anybody I didn’t get asked for my full name and age, date of birth and the name of my pet dog,” he added, perhaps indicating confusion between data gathered for subsequent data mining operations and the authentication needed for a business to discuss his personal affairs with a random voice on the telephone.

But Day soon returned to his core point. If your privacy is breached it’s either blind luck or your own damn fault: “You know, if you take your mistress to the tennis and you sit behind a server and you get your picture in your paper and your wife sees it because you were there with your girlfriend at the tennis, that’s not the media’s fault. That’s your fault.

“Equally you can have bad luck. You can be hit by a car crossing the street and find a picture of yourself on Facebook [published in the paper]. You might not want it, but you’re part of a news event and I’m sorry, but that’s the way it’s got to be if we’re going to report anything …

“Facebook is public property. If you put a picture up on Facebook, please don’t be surprised, please don’t complain if you become newsworthy and Facebook is used as a source for your picture. If you don’t want that, don’t put it there.”

Never mind that Facebook may have misled you with confusing privacy controls and by labelling all your contacts as “friends”, as if you could trust them all.

Note: only journalists from The Australian are quoted here because only writers for The Australian were speaking at the conference: Day, Merritt and also Janet Albrechtsen. No one from Fairfax or the ABC or from commercial or community radio or TV were speaking, nor anyone from the so-called new media.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
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