The name of Sydney television journalist Steve Barrett has cropped up in connection with the alleged $165 million Australian Tax Office tax scam.

Twenty-five years ago, when “The Bar Rat” was working as a crime reporter for one of the commercial networks, his behaviour was the subject of a classic Media Watch gotcha. After the police had shot a demented old schizophrenic on a suburban street, the media descended on the poor man’s house on their usual frantic quest for pictures of the victim and an interview with his widow. Two TV crews were already in the lounge room looking at a family photo album when Barrett arrived. One of the cameramen already in the room sensed trouble and quietly began filming from his lap.

The footage didn’t capture Barrett announcing himself as being from a media organisation, and he told the widow that photos of her husband were required “for police identification purposes”, then reached down and took the pictures he wanted from the album.

The footage of this clear breach of professional ethics found its way to Media Watch and formed the basis of a segment that would, for any other journalist, most probably have ended their careers. Media Watch then followed up their expose by referring the material they’d obtained to the journalists’ union, the Media, Entertainment and Arts Alliance (MEAA), for consideration by its judiciary committee.

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Nothing happened. First, the MEAA said that they didn’t need to review Barrett’s behaviour because no complaint had been made to them (this was hardly surprising, as the widow had no English). Media Watch made their own formal complaint on her behalf, but again nothing happened. The MEAA now claimed they couldn’t assemble the required number of Barrett’s colleagues to form a judiciary committee panel. After yet more pressure from Media Watch — and more than a year after the incident — the committee finally met.

The result? Barrett was cleared of any wrongdoing, despite the footage showing at least two breaches of the Journalists’ Code of Ethics. The MEAA then issued a summary of their findings, which concentrated on their own allegation that Media Watch had misrepresented the incident and had unfairly criticised Barrett through the use of “selective editing”.

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