Is The Public Interest Served By Public Broadcasting?

February 7, 2014

By MARCUS BREEN, Professor of Communication and Media, editor of the International Journal of Technology Knowledge and Society, and member of the Institute for Law, Government and Policy.

In the past couple of  months several news articles and print media discussion pieces have assessed moves against the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) the national public broadcaster. Late in January, the ABC’s journalism was called into question by the Prime Minister Tony Abbott, for its coverage of refugees seeking to escape into Australian territorial waters from Indonesia. Abbott statementsIt was a nationalist-centric set of comments that is notable for the way it coinstructs the ABC role as one that offers preferential reportage of Australian interests:”Prime Minister Tony Abbott has berated ABC News, arguing that it is taking ”everyone’s side but Australia’s” and that journalists should give the navy the ”benefit of the doubt” when it comes to claims of wrongdoing.”

Following this outburst, and a somewhat less subtle one last year from Australia’s Foreign Minister Julie Bishop, who asked if teh ABC was promoting the national interest. Bishop the role of public broadcasters has become a hot target for conservatives. The ideals of a public broadcaster like the ABC are independence and criticism, hallmarks of the modernist model of society.
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The Man Without A Name To Get One – A Small Victory For Open Justice

December 12, 2013

By MARK PEARSON, Professor of Journalism and Social Media and member of the Institute for Law, Government and Policy.

We have won a small victory for open justice by persuading the NSW Mental Health Tribunal to allow the Australian Broadcasting Corporation to use the name of a forensic patient in a Background Briefing program on Radio National next year.

Colleague Associate Professor Tom Morton from the University of Technology Sydney and I have been conducting an applied research project about publicity of mental health proceedings – centred upon the case of a Sydney patient who wishes to be identified in reportage on his situation.

We are presenting a progress report on our study at the Journalism Education Association of Australia annual conference in Mooloolaba, Queensland today (December 4, 2013).

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The MEAA Code Of Ethics: All Spin And No Stick

December 4, 2013

By MARK PEARSON, Professor of Journalism and Social Media and member of the Institute for Law, Government and Policy.

The go-to document for journalists refusing to ‘fess up their sources or taking the high ethical ground is the MEAA Journalists’ Code of Ethics – but the irony is that the journalists’ union uses notoriously ineffective and opaque processes to police this high profile code.

Unlike the Australian Press Council, the ethics panel of the Media, Entertainment and Arts Alliance (MEAA) has actual disciplinary powers at its disposal for use against individual journalists who breach its Code of Ethics – but it has rarely used them. Its powers extend to any journalists who are members of the Alliance. However, these days large numbers of journalists throughout the industry are not members.

In 1999, the alliance updated the code to a twelve-item document, requiring honesty, fairness, independence and respect for the rights of others. The alliance’s ethical complaints procedures are outlined in Section 8 of the Rules of the  MEAA (2009), summarised on the union’s website. Complaints must be in writing stating the name of the journalist, the unethical act and the points of the Code that have been breached. The judiciary committee (made up of experienced journalists elected every two years by state branch members) then meets to consider the complaint. They can dismiss or uphold the complaint without hearing further evidence, call for further evidence and hold hearings. Hearings involve the committee, the complainant and the journalist and follow the rules of natural justice. Lawyers are excluded. Penalties available to the committee include a censure or rebuke for the journalist, a fine of up to $1000 for each offence, and expulsion from the union. Both parties have 28 days to appeal to an appeals committee of three senior journalists in each state elected every four years and then to a national appeals committee of five journalists.

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Whither Media Reform Under Abbott?

November 26, 2013

By MARK PEARSON, Professor of Journalism and Social Media and member of the Institute for Law, Government and Policy.

Where will the new Liberal-National Coalition government led by Prime Minister Tony Abbott head with the reform of media regulation? Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull and Attorney-General George Brandis were vocal opponents of the former Gillard Government’s proposals to merge press self-regulation with broadcast co-regulation into a new framework.

Recent inquiries into media regulation in the UK (Leveson, 2012), Australia (Finkelstein, 2012) and New Zealand (Law Commission, 2013) have recommended major changes to the regulation of media corporations and the ethical practices of journalists. Their motivation for doing so stemmed from public angst – and subsequent political pressure – over a litany of unethical breaches of citizens’ privacy over several years culminating in the News of the World scandal in the UK and the subsequent revelations at the Leveson Inquiry (2012) with an undoubted ripple effect in the former colonies.

Many contextual factors have informed the move for reform, including some less serious ethical breaches by the media in both Australia and New Zealand, evidence of mainstream media owners using their powerful interests for political and commercial expediency, and the important public policy challenge facing regulators in an era of multi-platform convergence and citizen-generated content.  Minister Turnbull is an expert on the latter element and it is hard to imagine him not proposing some new, perhaps ‘light-touch’, unified regulatory system during this term in office. Read the rest of this entry »


Election Postscript: A Mindful Analysis Of Media Coverage

November 15, 2013

By MARK PEARSON, Professor of Journalism and Social Media and member of the Institute for Law, Government and Policy.

[This blog was first published in the St James Ethics Centre’s Living Ethics newsletter, Issue 93, Spring 2013. Subscribe here.]

Australian journalists operate under an array of ethical guidelines, including the MEAA Code of Ethics and numerous employer and industry codes of practice.

While these documents differ widely in their wording, they espouse common values of truth, accuracy, fairness and the public’s right to information. They disapprove of invasions of privacy, disclosure of confidential sources, discriminatory language, subterfuge, deception, plagiarism and conflicts of interest.

When it comes to assessing the ethics of news coverage of an event as broad in scope as a federal election we find some guidance in such codes but other moral frameworks can add value.

Although I am not a Buddhist, I have recently found value in applying some of that religion’s foundational principles – in a secular way – to the assessment of journalism ethics and have been sharing this approach with colleagues and students through my writing and teaching. Read the rest of this entry »


Privacy In Australia – A Timeline From Colonial Capers To Racecourse Snooping, Possum Perving And Delving Drones

October 15, 2013

By MARK PEARSON, Professor of Journalism and Social Media and member of the Institute for Law, Government and Policy.

The interplay between the Australian media and privacy laws has always been a struggle between free expression and the ordinary citizen’s desire for privacy. I have developed this timeline to illustrate that tension.

1827: NSW Chief Justice Francis Forbes rejects Governor Ralph Darling’s proposal for legislation licensing the press, stating: “That the press of this Colony is licentious may be readily admitted; but that does not prove the necessity of altering the laws.” (Historical Records of Australia, Series 1, Vol. 13, pp. 290-297)

1830: The Sydney Gazette and New South Wales Advertiser publishes an extract from London’s New Monthly Magazine on the prying nature of the British press compared with its European counterparts, stating: “The foreign journals never break in upon the privacy of domestic life”. But the London newspapers would hound a ‘lady of fashion’ relentlessly: “They trace her from the breakfast table to the Park, from the Park to the dinner-table, from thence to the Opera or the ball, and from her boudoir to her bed. They trace her every where. She may make as many doubles as a hare, but they are all in vain; it is impossible to escape pursuit.”

1847: NSW becomes the first Australian state to add a ‘public benefit’ element to the defence of truth for libel – essentially adding a privacy requirement to defamation law (ALRC Report 11, p. 117)

1882: First identified use of the phrase ‘right to privacy’ in an Australian newspaper. Commenting on a major libel case, the South Australian Weekly Chronicle (22.4.1882, p.5) states: “A contractor having dealings with the Government or with any public body has no right to privacy as far as those dealings go.”

1890: In a landmark Harvard Law Review article, the great US jurist Samuel D. Warren and future Supreme Court Justice Louis D. Brandeis announce a new ‘right to privacy’ in an article by that very name. There is a ripple effect in Australia with several mentions of the term in articles between 1890-1900.

1937: A radio station used a property owner’s land overlooking a racecourse to build a platform from which it broadcast its call of the horse races. The High Court rules the mere overlooking of the land did not consti­tute an unlawful interference with the racing club’s use of its property. The decision viewed as a rejection of a common law right to privacy: Victoria Park Racing and Recreation Grounds Co. Ltd v. Taylor (1937) 58 CLR 479. Read the rest of this entry »


Media Law Basics For Election Bloggers

August 8, 2013

By MARK PEARSON, Professor of Journalism and Social Media and member of the Institute for Law, Government and Policy.

Countless laws might apply to the serious blogger and citizen journalist because Web 2.0 communications transcend borders into places where expression is far from free.  

Even in Australia there are nine jurisdictions with a complex array of laws affecting writers and online publishers, including defamation, contempt, confidentiality, discrimination, privacy, intellectual property and national security.

If you plan on taking the ‘publish and be damned’ approach coined by the Duke of Wellington in 1824, then you might also take the advice of Tex Perkins from The Cruel Sea in 1995: “Better get a lawyer, son. Better get a real good one.”

(A quick disclaimer: My words here do not constitute legal advice. I’m not a lawyer.)

The problem is that most bloggers can’t afford legal advice and certainly don’t have the luxury of in-house counsel afforded to journalists still working for legacy media.

So if you’re going to pack a punch in your writing you at least need a basic grasp of the main areas of the law, including the risks involved and the defences available to you.

Defamation remains the most common concern of serious writers and commentators because blog posts so often risk damage to someone’s reputation – but it does have some useful defences.

Political commentary has been much livelier over the past two decades since the High Court handed down a series of decisions conveying upon all citizens a freedom to communicate on matters of politics and government. Read the rest of this entry »