Ackland article raises privacy issues when ostensibly discussing press complaints regulation

May 4, 2012 |

In Richard Ackland’s Grotesque cases show failure of regulation the theme is the failure of the press to regulate itself.  True.  The Press Council barely functions in giving those wronged a venue to make a complaint.  Whether the recommendations from Finkelstein review provide a cure or are an overreaction creating an intolerable intrusion on freedom of speech is a matter of conjecture. What Ackland does however highlight is the legal protections available to what Ackland described as grotesque intrusions into the privacy of others where there is no discernible public interest.  The first example was a media ambush by Leanne Edelsten, with A Current Affairs camera team in tow, of her paramour Clive James.  From what I saw on Media Watch tawdry does not even begin to describe this odious display of moral debasement.  Ackland describes the scene neatly.  But he stresses the distinction between the Australian and the British Law when he says:

This little kiss-and-tell was broadcast in Australia, so James really can’t sue for breach of privacy, as he could if the show had gone to air in Britain.

And that is the nub of it. And a good example why there should be a statutory right to privacy in Australia.  There is clearly a privacy issue involving Edelsten and James.  That Edelsten is prepared to cash in on the relationship does alter his expectation of privacy.  There is obviously a balancing act required, as the cases stress.  But what possible public interest in ambushing a frail Clive James leaving his apartment and filming him standing there listening to Edelsten prattle on about her concerns about them adds nothing to a non issue.

The article provides:

Clive James, 73, was ambushed in a Cambridge street by a film crew from A Current Affair last week.

It was part of a broadcast in which Leanne Edelsten, former wife of the celebrity tragic Geoffrey Edelsten, discussed her eight-year affair with James.

That they drank tea and ate Cherry Ripes and were known to each other as Mr Wolf and Miss Hood were among the touching vignettes revealed in this pointless, tawdry item.

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James looked positively puzzled as Edelsten pounced when he emerged, cameras whirring, from his basement flat, to which he has been ex-nuptially rusticated.

In recent times, James has been in a different space, battling leukaemia and completing his poetry collection Nefertiti in the Flak Tower. Channel Nine, Leanne Edelsten and Cherry Ripes bearing down on him must have seemed like a bad acid trip.

This little kiss-and-tell was broadcast in Australia, so James really can’t sue for breach of privacy, as he could if the show had gone to air in Britain.

In News Limited’s Daily Telegraph yesterday, there was a page three story with the catchy headline ”Lara knew of nudes”. It pointed to the full report on page 23 where we could be nourished with the back story to Channel Nine’s broadcast on Tuesday night of a naked Bingle.

Those who missed this scoop will be keen to learn that Bingle was snapped by a lurking photographer as she stood without clothes at the window of her Bondi ”fishbowl apartment”. Apparently she was closing the curtains after stepping from the shower. All of this misfortune unfolded as the launch date looms for her reality TV show Being Lara Bingle.

Now there are allegations that Bingle’s agent knew of the nude snaps before they were published. Channel Nine’s justification was of its usual rigorous standard. A Current Affair’s Grant Williams was quoted as saying: ”My job is to expose grubs who think it is all right to take photos of naked women through bedroom windows.”

It’s as though the findings of the Finkelstein inquiry into the media, proposed statutory enforcement of journalistic standards and the agitation for an Australian law of privacy are all fantasies.

In recent experience, there have been two memorably unattractive media transgressions – until Clive and Lara were added to the cocktail.

We had the Sunday Telegraph’s publication in 2009 of the fake Pauline Hanson photos, with the bogus former One Nation siren fetchingly clad in lingerie. One News Limited hack justified this on the grounds that ”public people are public property whether they like it or not”.

Then there was the David Campbell escapade outside the men-only sauna Ken’s of Kensington. Channel Seven’s justifications for this exposé´ of the then NSW minister for transport were laughably lamentable, but they were rescued by the industry ”regulator”, who said that even though there was a breach of the privacy provisions of the industry code, there was a ”public interest” in knowing why the minister resigned before this slice of life was put to air.

Since then, Finkelstein has come out with a proposal for a government-funded, statutory news media council to set standards, handle complaints and deliver enforceable remedies, such as apologies, corrections, retractions and rights of reply.

In conformity with precedent, the news industry, including the publishers of this newspaper, reacted with alarm. Inevitably there are journalists who hold concerns about these proposals, but by no means all think they amount to the end of press freedom – the objections seem principally to be coming from management. Why would journalists not be keen to be part of an organisation that is accountable to its readers and part of a gold standard scheme of good housekeeping?

The Convergence Review, conducted for the government by a panel of worthies and released this week, says no to statutory regulation, instead proposing an industry-led regulator and complaints handler for ”content service enterprises”, who would be obliged to take part. It would be funded largely by the publishers and broadcasters themselves, but with provision for government top-ups.

Contrary to what we believed about a convergent media landscape, two regulators are proposed by this review, and the ABC and SBS would not be required to be part of the content standards body.

How media organisations would be compelled to be part of a self-regulating scheme without some sort of strong-arm legislation is not readily apparent.

There is a fascinating section in the Finkelstein report giving chapter and verse on the pitiful failure of media self-regulation. One example is Britain’s Press Complaints Commission, which has collapsed under the weight of its own blindness. This was the body that gave the News of the World and News International a clean bill of health on phone hacking.

The PCC has been the subject of at least eight inquiries and on several occasions there were proposals to add real teeth, but each time the press barons and editors persuaded the authorities to give them one more chance. Now it has cracked completely, waiting for whatever Lord Justice Leveson suggests should replace it.

Tonight the Media, Entertainment and Arts Alliance hosts the annual press freedom dinner – a worthy occasion to bring to the fore many of the threats to reporters and reporting.

What should not be forgotten is that the media here is not free of certain dark arts. Significant bits of Australian journalism have been drinking at the last-chance saloon well beyond closing time.

The self-regulated, industry-funded regime for newspapers and the partially self-regulated system for broadcasters have failed to deliver a decently accountable standard for a free media.

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