The NT News is everyone’s favourite punching bag this morning, after it published a series of excruciating emails sent by now-NT Senator Nova Peris to athlete Ato Boldon five years ago. The emails suggest Peris and Boldon  were having an affair, the salacious details of which are published in the paper. The NT News says it published the emails because of the allegation, drawn from the emails, that Peris organised to get Boldon to Australia on the taxpayer’s dime in order to facilitate their affair, even though, according to an Athletics Australia audit, he did the job well. In the NT News this morning, the paper writes that it stands by its story, “which deals with a matter of public importance, namely the use of taxpayer funds”.

Asked to comment on the ethics of publication this morning, Prime Minister Tony Abbott ducked, saying he had no intention of “pontificating” on media standards. But other politicians were more than happy to dig right in. On ABC Radio, Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull said the paper published too much. “I just felt that there was perhaps more of the personal in that correspondence that was published than was needed to pursue the public interest question they were raising,” he said. On Seven this morning, former premiers Jeff Kennett and Peter Beattie agreed the paper went too far. “The important issue here is: where is the public interest?” Beattie asked. “I can’t see a misuse of funds. Whether or not they had an affair or  not … is irrelevant.” “Peter and I both agree on this issue,” Kennett concluded. “It’s another example of where a person’s reputation can be trashed in the name of the free press.”

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But there is support for the NT News. Former Media Watch host Jonathan Holmes told Crikey the evidence that Peris sought and obtained public money for an inappropriate motive was a strong enough reason to warrant publication. “Of course there can be arguments about whether all the details published needed to be published,” he said. As Crikey has pointed out, the extraneous details published by the NT News comprised a lot of what dominated the public discussion following publication. In its rewrite of the stories, Fairfax, for example, led with Peris’ views regarding Olympian Cathy Freeman. Nonetheless, Holmes says, the public interest argument regarding the central aspect of the story is strong.

Peris isn’t the only one to have her name trashed by the publication of her private correspondence in recent weeks. Barry Spurr, a now-suspended professor of poetry at the University of Sydney and consultant to the government’s curriculum review, is suing New Matilda after it published a series of his emails in which he made racist and sexist remarks about those around him.

While condemnation of New Matilda’s stories hasn’t been as loud as that of the NT News, many were dismayed by the invasion of privacy and doubtful of the public interest justification. Writing on ABC’s The Drum, Dr Lauren Rosewarne, a senior lecturer in social and political sciences at the University of Melbourne, said private emails sent between friends were never a good indicator of a person’s views. “At best they are an out-of-context snapshot of correspondence shared with a narrow, knowing audience privy to a history of in-jokes and familiar with your linguistic quirks and ribaldry….  [S]ingle lines from my own emails — and I dare say, from most people’s emails — could be quoted in isolation and lead to a tarring and feathering.”

“Holmes says if one applauds the Barry Spurr stories, one must also be willing to consider the merits of the Nova Peris pieces.”

It’s an argument Holmes doesn’t buy. “I think if you read the emails, it’s very hard to buy the idea that they were so jokey that they don’t represent a fundamental view of the world,” he said. “I just think it’s very hard to swallow that.”

Holmes says if he were in New Matilda‘s shoes, he wouldn’t have hesitated to publish the story. “To my mind, it’s a lay-down case of public interest trumping privacy. Because of his position — not so much as a professor at a university, although that could be argued on its own — on the national curriculum, the fact that he harbours such private views becomes of national importance. Particularly with regards to his comments on Aboriginal literature.”

“I think they did it quite responsibly. If I could fault anything, it’d be the fact that they didn’t publish the complete emails at first. I think, if you’ve got the documents these days, there’s no excuse for not putting them up.”

Michael Gawenda, a former editor-in-chief of The Age who’s now a fellow at the University of Melbourne’s Centre for Advancing Journalism, says he would have published a story based on the Spurr emails. But he wouldn’t have written about them in their entirety.

“I think that the only public interest is in those emails that pertain to his views about indigenous Australians. That’s because of his position as a consultant to the review of the national curriculum, which includes recommendations on indigenous studies. No matter what he says about the purpose of what he was writing, the fact is those views are abhorrent. He can defend them if he wants to. But it is in the public interest that we know that he held those views and so we can judge whether they informed, in one way or another, what he recommended about the curriculum.”

“But is it in the public interest to publish what he thinks about the quality of students at the University of Sydney, or what he thinks about the vice-chancellor? I’d say not. People say all sorts of things about their colleagues and superiors privately. It’s just not in the public interest to divulge that.”

On the Peris case, Gawenda is adamant he wouldn’t have published anything at all.

“They focus on issues which are absolutely private, and invade her privacy in quite an egregious way,” he said. “Whether or not she said what she said about Cathy Freeman, or what she said to Boldon in personal emails … was totally not in the private interest. There was nothing substantial in those stories that pointed to the public interest. I wouldn’t have published the story at all, and I think it’s a step in the wrong direction for journalism.”

But Holmes says if one applauds the Barry Spurr stories, one must also be willing to consider the merits of the Nova Peris pieces. “My own view is that the public interest argument is as strong in the Nova Peris case as it is in the Barry Spurr case: it would be illogical to say one is justified but the other is not.”

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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