As the saying goes: ”Can you bear it?” In much of the Western world, the established media is under threat from social media. It is at this time that some who once benefited from old media become critical of all journalism.
Take the Crikey publisher, Eric Beecher, who is a former newspaper editor. In his submission to the independent media inquiry, headed by Ray Finkelstein, QC, Beecher declared that there was not enough focus on ”quality journalism” in Australia, which he regards as central to ”civilised society”.
All well and good. Except for the fact Beecher’s Crikey newsletter is not the embodiment of quality journalism. For starters, it does not engage a fact-checker. Indeed, the online publication actually proclaims the fact it publishes undocumented ”tips and rumours”. Crikey also, on occasions, publishes the home addresses of people who are targets of its occasional contributors.
Then there is Latham himself. The former Labor leader has lodged a complaint with the Press Council concerning recent reports in The Sunday Telegraph about his behaviour at a public school swimming program in Camden. The newspaper reported he vehemently criticised Bev Waugh, mother of the cricketers Steve and Mark Waugh, about the program.
These days Latham apparently believes he is a victim of media intrusion and that his utterances in public places should not be reported. If the Press Council upholds this complaint, media freedom will be severely curtailed. Latham is a columnist with The Spectator Australia and The Australian Financial Review and appears as a commentator on Sky News (part-owned by Rupert Murdoch’s News Ltd). In addition, Latham receives an indexed superannuation benefit of around $75,000 a year, due to his time as a federal parliamentarian. In other words, he is the beneficiary of taxpayer funding.
As the Transport Workers Union official Wayne Forno pointed out in the AFR in 2003, virtually all the jobs Latham held, up to and including becoming Labor leader, were ”provided by the ALP”. His employment after politics is a consequence of his time as a Labor MP.
In recent years Latham has been banging on about the primacy of privacy. In August last year he wrote that ”no matter one’s standing in society, a basic right of citizenship is the capacity to enjoy the quiet pleasures of a private life”.
The problem is one of double standards. The Latham Diaries (Melbourne University Press, 2005) named a married Labor parliamentarian as having had a ”long-running relationship” with a female lobbyist in Canberra, who was named. Latham also identified a female journalist in Sydney with whom he ”once had a fling”. And he cited a former ALP staffer whom he claimed had an affair with the ”missus” of a senior Labor official in Melbourne. And now Latham is pleading with the Press Council to prevent a newspaper from reporting a public exchange he had with a swimming coach.
In August 2002, Latham issued a release of a speech he planned to give in a grievance debate in the House of Representatives. He misjudged the time limit, and only the first half of the speech was delivered. In the second half, Latham attempted to defend his actions in breaking the arm of an East European-born taxi driver, who had a wife and dependent children, during an altercation. Latham named the taxi driver and then asserted that the man ”aspired to workers’ compensation and that’s what he’s now got”. It is a callous and cruel comment that also took no account of the taxi driver’s right to privacy.
The call for greater regulation of the print media does not just come from former editors and ex-politicians. In his decision in Eatock v Bolt last September, Judge Mordecai Bromberg made findings concerning not only what the News Limited columnist Andrew Bolt wrote about ”fair-skinned Aboriginal people” but also what he did not write. Bromberg objected to Bolt’s ”tone” and said it was important ”to also read between the lines”. This, despite the fact the law is supposed to be about establishing facts – not making inferences.
There is good reason for the media to act responsibly. But there is also good reason to preserve a free media, independent of excessive regulation. And there is no reason to listen to the likes of Beecher and Latham on what constitutes responsible media behaviour. It’s just not bearable.
Gerard Henderson is the executive director of the Sydney Institute.