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Privacy in the age of no privacy

Lara Bingle and Michael Clarke faced enormous media interest over their relationship. AAP

Reaction to the widening News of the World scandal has again highlighted the lack of protection against invasion of privacy by the media in Australia.

Former Prime Minister Paul Keating renewed his attack on the Australian print media’s self-regulation calling it a joke and suggested that rather than have a right to appeal to a body funded by print organisations, the Australian Press Council, they should have a legal remedy.

The United States has had a legal remedy for invasion of privacy for many years, and the United Kingdom – notwithstanding the current crisis in confidence in the Murdoch media – has seen some celebrities successfully sue newspapers over privacy invasion and others attempt to prevent material from being published about them by legal means.

Australia has no law guaranteeing an individual privacy against a media ever-so-willing to intrude into their private lives. This is perhaps difficult to understand, given that politicians are often the ones on the receiving end of the media’s unwanted attention.

While an argument can be made for exposing politicians’ immoral behaviour on the basis that if they cheat on their spouse they might bring the same morality into their public life, the argument carries little weight when applied to justifying intrusion into the private lives of celebrities, like sportspeople and those from the arts, like actors, authors or singers.

The journalists’ Code of Ethics contains only one reference to respecting privacy, calling on journalist members of the union to ‘Respect private grief and personal privacy’ adding that they have a “right to resist compulsion to intrude”.

But this clause has more to do with the “death knock” where a journalist seeks information from a grieving family than it does to considering the privacy of an individual or celebrity. There are similar clauses in various media codes of practice, but they mean little when the media is camped outside a person’s home reporting and recording their every move.

Journalists do not enjoy a high reputation for honesty and ethics. The latest survey of professions by the Roy Morgan polling organisation showed only 11% of respondents thought print journalists were honest and ethical.

The figure for TV journalists was not much higher – 16% . A recent international survey of 127 journalists in 46 countries, including Australia, found that most faced ethical dilemmas at work and most admitted to having behaved unethically. They blamed, among other things, internal pressures from their editors and employers for their behaviour.

Since the advent of the 24-hour television news services like Skynews and the ABC’s News 24, immediate access to news through innumerable sites on the Internet, the circulation of information via Twitter and Facebook, and the fact that everyone with a phone can be a citizen journalist, the traditional role of the newspaper as the “first draft of history” has changed. More newspaper content these-days consists of background of the already-known news of the day and opinion pieces from an raft of journalists and commentators. At the tabloid end of the media scale often this amounts to entertainment in the form of the latest celebrity scandal.

In 2009 the Australian Law Reform Commission recommended a statutory right to privacy, and suggested that the Privacy Act be strengthened to require the media to deal with privacy issues

Since then there have been a number of invasions into the privacy of individuals, like the “outing” of New South Wales politician David Campbell and revelations about another NSW politician, John Della Bosca. But while there may be case in some instances for exposure of such conduct for the reason mentioned above, what possible reason can there be for the media’s hounding of various celebrities? For a fortnight in March, 2010, Australia’s media followed every move by that nation’s “sporting royal couple”, Australian cricket Vice-captain Michael Clarke and bikini model Lara Bingle as their engagement unravelled. (The author has been investigating the newspaper coverage of the incident as part of his doctoral research).

Clarke rushed home from a tour of New Zealand to be with Lara after a partially-nude photo of her appeared in a weekly gossip magazine. Between then and his raising his bat in triumph after scoring a hundred in a test match back in New Zealand nearly two weeks later, the capital city newspapers in Brisbane, Sydney, Canberra, Melbourne and Adelaide had written about the break-up (and used it as cartoon fodder) about 230 times.

At a time when the young couple deserved some privacy, they dominated the news not only in print, but also on TV, radio and the Internet (and social networking sites). Although they are both public figures, even they deserved some privacy at that time.

As a journalism ethics lecturer at Bond University, this author often asks students: “How would you feel if such material was written about you, or someone you care about?” It is a question many tabloid journalists – including television current affairs journalists in that category – appear to give scant thought to.

Much of this reporting is not telling the public what “they need to know”, but rather what “they want to know”. Because celebrity scandal and gossip is supposedly popular with the public, does that mean the media needs to continuously cater to that popularity? Because the public attends the game, buys the book or CD, or attends the sell-out concert, does that give them the right to know every detail of a celebrities’ private life?

The News of the World built their circulation on celebrity scoops, but they have been caught out going too far in catering to their audience’s perceived interest in gossip and scandal. No-one has suggested that the sort of activities undertaken by the NotW reporters to get stories (phone hacking and paying for telephone numbers etc.) are being used in their sister publications in Australia.

The concentration of ownership of newspapers in Australia – or put another way, the dominance of the Murdoch mastheads across the country – mitigates against the intense competition and “get the story at all costs” culture of the British tabloids.

News Limited’s Chairman and Chief Executive in Australia, John Hartigan, has said he is confident practices like those exposed in The News of the World scandal have not occurred in Australia, and has ordered a review of editorial spending over the past three years to confirm that payments made to third parties were for legitimate services.

The leader of the Greens, Senator Bob Brown, whose party often feels the sting of News Limited attacks on their policies, has suggested a Senate inquiry into media ownership and journalism ethics.

While the newspapers argue media freedom is a cornerstone of a democratic society, with that freedom to publish comes the responsibility not to abuse it by, among other things, unwarranted invasion of individual’s privacy.

The News of the World scandal might provide added momentum to the push for a legal remedy for privacy invasion. A balance needs to be found addressing genuine public concern about invasion of privacy and further media regulation.

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