(IMAGE: AAP/Danny Casey)

Yesterday the ABC landed in hot water after it identified sexual assault survivors without their consent in an advance copy of a Me Too documentary released to journalists.

A joint BuzzFeed and news.com.au investigation revealed the documentary, produced by an external company and presented by Tracey Spicer, failed to blur out the names, photos and details of three women who had experienced rape and domestic violence. 

But as sharp-minded scholars of legal history may remember, this isn’t the first time Aunty has got in trouble for compromising a sexual assault survivor’s privacy.

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Back in 2001, “Jane Doe” was attacked and raped by her estranged husband. On the day of his sentencing a year later, an ABC radio news report revealed the victim’s name, and details of her location right down to the part of the Melbourne suburb where she lived and the assault took place.

The two journalists responsible both pleaded guilty to criminal charges under laws prohibiting publication of information identifying victims of sexual offences.

But Jane Doe also brought a lawsuit against the ABC, and in 2007, a Victorian County Court judge awarded her damages of $234,000. The case garnered a degree of attention for its treatment of the right to privacy.

Traditionally, Australian common law hasn’t recognised that particular right. But in this case, the judge took the novel step of finding the ABC had indeed invaded Jane Doe’s privacy.

At the time, there were fears the judgment could have a chilling effect on reporters’ work. However, given the decision came in a relatively low court, and goes against the grain of other judicial authority, its impact on the Australian media law landscape has been muted.

Still, over a decade later, Jane Doe v ABC is still taught in law schools today. And the facts, at least, ought not to have been forgotten by the ABC’s substantial legal team. 

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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