Privacy calls arising out of Thomson affair interviews on A Current Affair and Today Tonight

June 8, 2012 |

The ABC reports of Thomson tabloid TV war sparks privacy concerns

Two tabloid television shows are squabbling over an interview with a former prostitute who now says she never had sex with MP Craig Thomson.

Yesterday a former prostitute came forward on Channel Seven’s Today Tonight show to recant her story that Mr Thomson had sex with her and paid for it on his union credit card.

A fortnight ago Channel Nine’s A Current Affair was roundly criticised when it announced it had tracked the woman down and admitted offering to pay her a large sum of money.

The interview did not go to air. Instead, ACA handed the tape to police, along with the woman’s statutory declaration that she had sex with Mr Thomson.

The woman now says it was all a case of mistaken identity and she contacted Channel Seven to set the record straight.

Unnamed, wearing thick-rimmed glasses and what appeared to be a wig, the Gold Coast-based woman apologised to Mr Thomson during the Today Tonight interview.

“How can I be 100 per cent sure it was him?” she said.

It is just a really terrible case of mistaken identity and it is horrible for Craig Thomson and I feel terrible for him

Prostitute at the centre of the rival TV reports

“[The escort agency] have a lot of clients that fitted that description, so it is just a really terrible case of mistaken identity and it is horrible for Craig Thomson and I feel terrible for him.”

The woman said she was initially tracked down by A Current Affair earlier this year and offered $50,000 for an interview.

When she declined, she said she was offered another $10,000.

“[ACA executive producer] Grant Williams called me a little bit later and said ‘We’ll offer you $60,000 and we’ll fly you down to Sydney’,” she said.

“So I thought, OK, alright, $60,000 just to tell a story about some guy that I met ages ago, what’s the harm in that?”

She then recorded the interview with Channel Nine, but never received any payment.

Then, after watching Mr Thomson give his hour-long speech to Parliament, she said she contacted Channel Nine by text message to retract her statement, and backed this up when an ACA journalist called her.

“I said I am not signing any contract to say that this is the truth because I am totally unsure now, and you want me to be 100 per cent sure, I am no longer 100 per cent sure and I’m not a credible witness,” she said.

Williams did not respond to the ABC’s request for an interview.

In a statement, he said the woman did contact ACA by text, but that she “indicated verbally that she stood by her positive identification of Thomson” when phoned back by one of the program’s reporters.

On Wednesday May 21, Williams and reporter Justin Armsden spent 90 minutes with Mr Thomson in his Parliament House office trying to convince him to do an interview.

Mr Thomson declined and the next day made a public statement attacking Channel Nine for engaging in “gutter” journalism.

That night ACA ran a story airing its allegations, but stopped short of using the interview with the woman.

A week later ACA said it had given the woman’s interview and statutory declaration to Victoria Police.

Last night the woman told Today Tonight that she could not have slept with Mr Thomson in May 2005 because she had checked her passport and found out she was in New Zealand at the time.

She also said she was not paid by Channel Seven, and said Channel Nine should never have aired her allegations.

The woman also denied she had been pressured to retract her interview.

Privacy implications

The infighting has prompted Government Whip Joel Fitzgibbon to call for privacy laws to be strengthened.

“Well, I would characterise what went to air last night as extraordinary, and regardless of all the facts, this sort of journalism is not the right path for Australia,” Mr Fitzgibbon told AM.

“We expect high standards of our media and this is why the Government needs to act to enforce those higher standards.

“MPs are accountable to their communities and we expect journalists to hold us to account, but the sort of Fleet Street approach we’ve seen of late I think will be rejected by the community.

“There are key initiatives in the pipeline, the establishment of a privacy (watchdog) and greater government regulation of our media.

“I think this gives weight to the Government for pursuing those initiatives with a great deal of enthusiasm.”

Channel Seven said Victorian Fraud Squad Police – who have been investigating the Health Services Union – have now interviewed the former prostitute.

Mr Thomson said in a statement last night that “the Today Tonight interview speaks for itself”.

The Australian was quick to note, at New privacy laws still long way off, despite whip’s call, that there is no time line for the implementation of a statutory right of privacy. There is no surprise in this prompt response. The Australian, in particular Chris Merritt in its Legal Affairs section, has long campaigned against a statutory right to privacy. Whether the piece is actually news rather than rebuttal is a live question.  Where the progress with the implementation of a statutory right of privacy is a matter of pure conjecture.  Law Reform Commissions in New South Wales, Victoria and the Australian Law Reform Commission all recommended a statutory right to privacy.  They differ around the edges on how it should be structured, defences, remedies and processes but these are matters of form over substance.  Any of the processes would be superior to the complaint handling process in the Privacy Act.


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