INQ explores several case studies of Australians victimised by intrusive reporting.
In early June 2014, this news item appeared on Channel Nine’s morning TV newsbreak:
A woman has been found stabbed to death on the Gold Coast. A man was also found at the home with serious injuries.
It sounded like a hundred other sad but routine crime reports, but for Jason Staveley, who was watching at his home in Sydney, it was anything but routine. The images that flashed before him — a red brick house surrounded by police cars and ambulance — belonged to his 69-year-old mother Beth. Her son first found out about her murder from a random news report, at the same time as hundreds of thousands of strangers.
“My legs went out from underneath me,” Jason Staveley told INQ of that moment. He rushed to the phone to call his brother at work: “It was the worst call I’ve ever had to make.” Queensland Police were already at his brother’s workplace when Staveley reached him. Although officers had asked the media not to report the story until next-of-kin had been informed, Nine was in such a rush to be the first to broadcast the footage they went to air before police had spoken to the family.
“There was no public interest in that story being on the television,” Staveley told INQ. “There was no murderer on the loose, there was no danger to the public, and it was a domestic incident that happened in a suburban street so it wasn’t affecting traffic, there was no safety issue for the rest of the public, so there was no need for it to be put on the television prior to us being told what was going on … I think it’s offensive it’s on national television before my brother, myself, our family had been told.”
Adding to the stress, Beth’s brother was in hospital at the time of the stabbing recovering from a heart bypass surgery, and had — fortunately — missed the news broadcast. “If he saw it on the television or read it in the newspaper before we got to see him, god knows what could’ve happened,” Staveley said.
Now working in Melbourne, Staveley lives with the constant reminder of how he came to find out about his mother’s death, an unassuming victim of the intense competitiveness of TV news broadcasts of accidents and murders and the looping 24/7 news cycle.
“The potential of a family going through the worst possible moment of their life being broadcast on television, it just astounds me, it stuns me that they do it and they get away with it, and there’s no honour amongst the editors,” he said, speaking in the methodical way of someone who has replayed a single day in his mind over and over.
The picture trumps all else and that is really, really poor.
Staveley didn’t watch the news much then, and he actively avoids it now. “There’s a broader responsibility to check what is the impact of reporting something or putting something on the air. There’s a lot of people involved in the process.”
Molly Lord was a 13-year-old equestrian champion. She had just died in a tragic quadbike accident on her family’s NSW south coast property. Within an hour, as her mother hunched over Molly’s body on the ground outside their home, a news helicopter hovered overhead, filming vision for the regional TV network WIN. At the same time, a photographer from the Illawarra Mercury was snapping away with a long lens on the private property.
“My beautiful girl Molly Lord was tragically taken from us,” Linda Goldspink-Lord wrote in a Facebook post, two weeks later. “As a mother this grief is beyond words. As I lay beside my deceased daughter, I had no idea that Orlando Chiodo from the Illawarra Mercury was taking private intimate photos of Molly and I which would then be placed in colour and close up in the paper the next day … My grief was intensified by your intrusion and I will fight you on this all the way.”
In her fog of grief, Goldspink-Lord didn’t pay attention to the hovering chopper or notice the photographer from the Illawarra Mercury who had arrived on the private property while paramedics were still trying to revive Molly. Everyone was too distracted to tell him to leave. Nor did Goldspink-Lord know that at that moment, reporters from the same local paper were being told over the phone by her husband Peter Lord — frantically making his way to Hong Kong airport to fly home — to respect their privacy, to keep their daughter’s name out of the paper and off the front page.
At the same time, a Seven news reporter repeatedly approached staff on the property for interviews. He went up to their house, to their stables, and was asked to leave at least five times before he left them alone. But he didn’t go far — he stayed outside the property to film a live report into the evening news bulletin.
The next day, despite the pleas of Peter Lord, an image of Molly’s body, covered in a white sheet with her feet protruding, as her mother lay over her, was published in colour on page 2 of the Illawarra Mercury, alongside an image of Molly riding her horse.
The Lords sued the outlets for the gross intrusion of their privacy, winning a confidential settlement and apologies from Seven, the Mercury and WIN.
“Linda and I need to stand up for the next poor family that will endure what we have been through and hopefully they will be allowed to grieve in peace without the intrusion of the media,” Lord told The Australian at the time.
Reform needs to occur at a political level and we intend to make as much noise as we possibly can to ensure that the grieving families of Australia can share their moments in private.
It was 1985, at the height of the AIDS crisis. Police officer Senior-Constable Kevin Mack was off-duty when he saw a car ram another into a pole in Melbourne’s Albert Park. In a split-second decision that would change the course of his life, Mack pulled the bloodied, unconscious driver out of the vehicle, cutting himself as he tried to clear the blood and spit from the dying driver’s airways. The Sun newspaper soon discovered that the victim who died in the crash had AIDS. The paper’s story — under the headline ‘AIDS smash: PC tells’ — reported that Mack was “shocked with the news that he could contract the deadly disease.” Mack’s life fell apart. He lost his marriage, career, and mental health. He became cynical and jaded, critical of almost everyone.
In those days, an AIDS diagnosis took years to confirm. Mack’s brave gesture turned into media scandal fuelled by the global AIDS crisis. It was, in Mack’s words, “a nightmare”. A letter from the driver’s doctor was leaked to the public, and Mack was embroiled in a relentless media storm that dragged on for months.
“We didn’t know how AIDS was transferred (back then). We had no gloves, no safety equipment. People were legitimately scared,” Mack said. “It was on the TV, the radio — suddenly, everyone was on board.” Journalists camped on the grass outside the Port Melbourne police station. The story went national and he became Australia’s poster boy for the devastating virus, despite never contracting it.
“You do everything for the right reasons and all of a sudden you’re the face of AIDS, and the person everyone thinks has AIDS. People all over Australia knew me for it. There was no accountability,” Mack said.
The social backlash was enormous. Mack was just 24 and six years into his police career, promoted ahead of his peers. In The Sun’s story, then-fledgling-now-famous police reporter John Silvester wrote: “Fellow policemen at the station have not let Sen. Constable Mack forget the episode, with regular good-natured ribbing.” But the ribbing was far from good-natured. Kevin was shunned by almost everyone he knew. An avid sports player, team members would often refuse to pick up the ball after he had touched it. During a football match, a passer-by heckled him. “Enough of the effing AIDs carrier,” he yelled.
His wife had a nervous breakdown. The couple had been trying to have a baby. Because they couldn’t give you medical results for years, we were told not to try to have children. For her, it was a death sentence.
The couple divorced shortly after. His friends disappeared and his social circle shrank. He was transferred from Melbourne to near his hometown in Wodonga. He developed PTSD.
Following the move, he continued to work in the police force for 41 years before being elected Mayor of Albury, a seat he has held for almost seven years. He remarried and has four children.
But the media frenzy still haunts him. When he ran as an independent for Riverina in the federal election this year, there was “a constant three-month run with the media,” he told INQ. “There was the pressure of having to have the right response and say the right thing. My body and brain started feeling sick again, I was thinking — this is what that felt like. It brought back a lot of the old pent-up stuff.”
Cheryl Kernot was being chased up the Pacific Highway by a journalist in hot pursuit by car. Her affair with former foreign minister Gareth Evans had just been revealed. But after three years of media pursuit and harassment, being chased by a reporter was hardly a novelty for the former Democrats leader who defected to the Labor Party in 1997. During her time in parliament she faced regular media stakeouts on her front lawn. Journalists tried to sneak into hospital when she was a patient, she moved house to a less visible apartment. The constant intrusion, she said, contributed to her marriage breakdown as her husband struggled to deal with the constant media attention and interest of his colleagues and friends.
The media was so obsessed with Cheryl Kernot after she defected as leader of the Australian Democrats to the Labor opposition that she even tried to disguise herself in public. It didn’t work. “If she thought the red wig, and subsequent hair-colour change, was going to make life easier, Kernot was wrong,” wrote Gabrielle Chan in The Australian in 2000. “It only made things worse. She attracted a level of media fascination usually reserved for royals, TV personalities and movie stars.”
That “fascination” went well beyond the media treatment experienced by most politicians, and far more than she thinks is acceptable. Even though she became accustomed to the stakeouts, that didn’t make them easier.
“It’s really awful having a media stakeout outside your house, it’s quite intimidating,” she told INQ. She recalls a story her now-adult daughter still talks about. “Journalists even came onto the premises and knocked on the door. Once when my daughter was a teenager I asked her to answer and she went to the door, wearing her pyjamas, and said, ‘Mum’s not doing any media today’.” Kernot says the cameraman was nonchalantly carrying the camera so her daughter didn’t even know she was being filmed. “She appeared on the news that night … in her pyjamas and she was speaking quietly so they used subtitles. I know that when she went to school after her friends had all seen it, it was an uncomfortable, unfair intrusion on her life.”
Things got so bad at their family home, with folding glass doors at the front, Kernot moved her family to an apartment where she thought they could protect their privacy. But media crews made it into the building’s foyer and filmed the surrounds to broadcast on the news.
After she lost her federal Queensland seat in the 2001 election the scrutiny intensified when her five-year affair with Labor frontbench heavyweight Gareth Evans was revealed by Crikey in July 2002, long after the relationship was over. After journalists followed her car to her publisher’s office, she stayed in a hotel for days to avoid going home to where the media was staking out her house and checking her mailbox (one news outlet noted the mail stacking up). The story was on front pages around the country. She did one interview (with the ABC’s Monica Attard) and the extreme attention died down (although she still gets calls asking her to comment on the relationship).
Kernot has since learned to be protective of her home and personal space. She’s cautious about handing out contact details and warns other women entering the public space about being too open with their homes.“I have been absolutely obsessive about guarding my phone numbers, about having a silent enrolment, and trying to engage with the media on my terms so I don’t get a phone call out of the blue anymore,” she said. “I think I was very naive about boundaries at the beginning.”
She’s an advocate of tighter privacy regulation, and not just because she’s had to deal with reporters trying to access her house from the back lane, or run the gauntlet of TV cameras just to leave her house.
I think the line’s become more blurred as politicians reveal more about themselves,” she said. “But I vehemently disagreed with journalists coming to the hospital … You shouldn’t be allowed to take photos or report on people when they’re in positions of going about their normal private business as a normal citizen. All that coverage saps your own confidence.
Hours after dozens of praying Muslims were massacred in Christchurch in March, the international media descended on the sleepy northern NSW regional city of Grafton, home town of the alleged killer Brenton Tarrant. His mother Sharon, an English teacher, reportedly heard about the massacre when reporters phoned her school. She was moved to a safe house and hasn’t been able to return to work. The weatherboard house Tarrant was raised in provided a backdrop for TV reporters filing their stories, despite the fact that he hadn’t lived there for many years, and the house was let. Journalists spoke to Tarrant’s family, ex-boss, locals in the street, anyone who could pull together a line about him or his family.
Four months since the massacre, Brenton Tarrant is still a sensitive topic for locals. He had been away from the town for years. Locals asked: what did it have to do with them? Why was the media knocking on their doors? “Okay, sure, the perpetrator was born here, but that’s it. He didn’t launch his attack from a secret base in Grafton,” one local said. “What happened in Christchurch happened in Christchurch and should stay there,” said another.
One neighbour, who asked not to be identified, described “being hounded by news people”. A commercial TV news broadcaster offered her and a family member $5000 each for 20 seconds of television, but she refused: “Why would we make money out of somebody else’s pain and misery?” For days, journalists were camped on the street, which she acknowledged was “perfectly legal”. Even now, she said, a journalist appears once every week or so asking questions. “They came from everywhere. From all over the place.” She said she kept repeating to the revolving door of journalists: “There is no story, just go away”. Residents told INQ an unknown journalist tried to enter the home of Tarrant’s grandparents, demanding they speak on camera. It got so bad a local reporter with Clarence Valley Independent called out news outlets to leave the family alone.
Sharon Tarrant’s home, as well as her daughter’s, was raided by the NSW Joint Counter Terrorism Team in the days after the attack, both filmed by waiting news cameras, before the pair were whisked away to a safe house. It is understood that Tarrant is currently living out of town and cannot teach children face-to-face. The Department of Education did not confirm whether she lost her job because they did “not publish private professional or personal information about staff”.
Priest Greg Jenks from the Christ Church Cathedral in Grafton was there to answer the media’s questions when the town was put in the spotlight, and he said residents overwhelmingly wanted to be left alone. “When his actual trial starts, we’re all going to be bracing ourselves because there’s going to be more media stories, naturally,” he said. “When the anniversary comes up in March next year, obviously there will be media inquiries (about) how the community is doing.”
In the spring, the town turns purple when the Jacaranda trees bloom and tourists flock to the Northern Rivers region to bask in the floral spectacle, but this year there is dread and “resentment” because festival organisers announced they wanted to invite New Zealand PM Jacinda Ardern. Ardern has been lauded for how she responded to the attacks — showing compassion, love and “restorative potential” — but residents are worried about “dredging up memories” of the Christchurch shooting and that it would bring “months of unwanted light on Grafton again”.
“They don’t want to mention his name but they are happy to mention ours, over and over,” said one person. “There’s a kind of resentment, and now it’s been exacerbated,” Jenks said. “Grafton is on edge — there is anger, there is shame, there is frustration.”
They are known across Perth as the “Claremont serial killings”. Between 1996 and 1997, three young women disappeared after nights out in the suburb of Claremont. The murderer was unknown, but local mayor and child psychologist Peter Weygers was named by police as a “person of interest”. After 19 years, new evidence disqualified him as the murderer. Another man is now facing trial for the murders, but Weygers has been socially and professionally isolated.
“It’s ongoing, and every time I see something in the papers it’s followed almost instantly with flashbacks,” Weygers told INQ. His house was raided by police in 2004, and he was named in a press conference as a suspect. “I would see headlines about me, suggesting I was the sort of person who has something to hide, and they wouldn’t ring me to ask if it was true.”
Weygers was a regular fixture in Perth’s news media as the mayor of Claremont and president of the Council of Civil Liberties — he was quoted in newspapers and was on the radio almost weekly, and counted the journalists he regularly dealt with among his friends. But when he was named by the police as a suspect, everything changed.
“With some exceptions, I’d characterise the media coverage as an evil campaign, started by The West,” Weygers said. Speaking from the home he shares with his wife Vicki, a home that has been staked out by the media and raided by police, Weygers feels hung out to dry by the state authorities who pursued him and by the media who compliantly reported their lines. He was moved to a desk job in the education department, away from the children he’d previously worked with.
“I was a high profile person, and not because I set out to be, but because of that role as spokesperson for the council of civil liberties,” he said. “And it would appear that I was a good story [when I was arrested], and the media was so anxious for a good story they didn’t question the contradictions. When this happened to me, where was the media to be a watchdog and support me? The media’s there to protect us from all these sort of things and to demand accountability as they’ve done in other cases.”
Weygers became a suspect when he didn’t answer a questionnaire police had sent out as part of the investigation into one of Perth’s worst serial killings. He says that media reports over the years had incorrectly and repeatedly reported he refused to be interviewed, that his home was searched, and that he’d left the country. “I’m stunned at the failure of the media,” Weygers said.
When his house was searched, one television reporter arrived almost at the same time as the police, and well before the rest of the pack. That journalist told Weygers he knew about the search because he drank at the same golf club as the cops — he’d been tipped off. Feeling done over by the press, and even more so by the state, Weygers hasn’t had enough trust in institutions to take any of the coverage to court, or to the Press Council (of which The West Australian has not been a member since 2012 anyway).
“My lawyers advised me that until they had succeeded in convicting someone, it would be hard to win a defamation case,” he said. “And because of my history as civil liberties president I know that unless you’ve got a deep pit of money you really risk going bankrupt and losing everything if you get involved in a defamation case.” As for the Press Council, he notes that it’s a body paid for and supported by the publications it regulates.
Until and unless the media carry out what I consider their moral professional duty to right this wrong, I don’t have any confidence in the Press Council.
While Weygers thinks that the press failed miserably in standing up against injustices done to him, he places full blame on the state, and is conspiratorial about the reason he was named as a suspect — he says he was uncovering information about drugs in prisons that authorities wanted covered up. “If I hadn’t been president of the Council for Civil Liberties this wouldn’t have happened,” he said. “I don’t drink, I don’t smoke, I was at the council every night, I could account for every minute of my life, so why this publicity? Why did the press write things that were entirely speculative?”
In 2013, an 18-year-old boy called Tristan Barker was “unmasked” by news.com.au as Australia’s worst internet troll — a headline in itself. But when it was discovered that he was also the son of Split Enz drummer Michael Barker, things really heated up. The media had a villain and a celebrity to sell the story. Paparazzi hired a boat to film his house in New Zealand. A journalist from news.com.au interviewed him with a hidden camera pressing him about the comments his son had made about a suicide victim. The footage was edited to appear that Michael Barker had agreed with his son.
Michael Barker was preparing to kick off an Australian tour with his band The Swamp Thing when his son Tristan was named by News Corp “investigations editor”-turned paparazzo Jonathan Marshall as Australia’s worst internet troll. Tristan was part of a trolling group online, posting provocative and nasty Facebook posts to his thousands of followers.
But what his father wasn’t ready for was the spotlight to be turned on the rest of the family. “I wasn’t ready for it and neither was my family,” Barker told INQ. “That was the early days of clickbait, and it was my life that was being clicked on and being presented in a false way to suit a narrative.”
Journalists called sponsors of Womad Festival, where Barker was playing, asking if they’d be withdrawing sponsorship if his sets went ahead. Seven’s Today Tonight picked up the story from Marshall, using footage from his secret camera and chasing the whole family for comment to give the story a ‘fresh angle’, and a reporter tried to get comment from Barker by barging into his dressing room-tent at Womad Festival in Adelaide before he went on stage to perform.
My wife was at home by herself, Womad put a security detail on me. I’ve played it many times and it was always very relaxed, never like that. It was extremely upsetting. People just ate it up. I was like, hang on, I’m not famous … I’m a backing muso. I can kind of understand that people want to know the back story, I just think the ethics are all wrong … we’ll reduce everything someone’s done to the lowest point of their lives.
Barker took the matter to his lawyers and eventually received a payout and apology, and told INQ he took action after some of his fans who happened to be lawyers saw the coverage, got in touch and suggested it.
“The saving grace from my perspective was to have had a good legal team that suited up for me and pushed it through to a settlement,” he said. “At the time I was like, whatever, but they said trust me, these guys have got to receive their comeuppance and it’s going to make the healing process easier for you if you can get them to retract these things. I would be a different person if I hadn’t have fought back. I would’ve been bitter.”
*Since publication INQ has amended this article to acknowledge Crikey’s coverage of Cheryl Kernot’s relationship with Gareth Evans.
NEXT IN THE SERIES: The Profiteers getting rich off the pursuit of tragedy