July 24

Media abuse or public interest?


The visit of the Sovereign Pontiff, Pope Benedict XVI and World Youth Day has concluded. The event was reported widely in the international media, including overseas television news.

A controversy has now surfaced concerning the Australian Broadcasting Corporation and World Youth Day.

The role of the media is of course to report the news, and not make it themselves. While the commercial media may campaign, media ethics require that comment be distinguishable from news reports.

One of the features of the 1999 referendum campaign was the way of vast elements of the media, particularly the “serious” media, campaigned for the Yes case even in claiming to report the news.

As the eminent British media authority Lord Deedes wrote in the London Daily Telegraph on 8 November, 1999:  “I have rarely attended elections in any country, certainly not a democratic one, in which the newspapers have displayed more shameless bias. One and all, they determined that Australians should have a republic and they used every device towards that end.”

His conclusion is supported by Dr Nancy Stone’s exhaustive survey of two representative serious media outlets.

The present controversy does not relate to the debate about the subventions to World Youth Day  by the Commonwealth and NSW governments, which was widely and properly reported.

…a campaign against Cardinal Pell, or acting in the public interest?

Rather it is about what Christopher Pearson described as a “reckless and ill-considered “attempt by ABC Lateline in almost nightly programmes to discredit and bring down Cardinal Pell (“Pell war a cardinal shame, “ The Weekend Australian , 19 July, 2008). 

This centred on whether one particular complainant  had almost 30 years before consented, as a twenty nine year old man,  to the sexual encounter he says wrecked his life, and for which his lawyers have demanded a settlement of $3.5 million. Lateline and other ABC programmes concentrated programme after programme on this story.


“If Lateline had done its homework,” Christopher Pearson wrote, “it would have discovered that this was not an open-and-shut case and made an effort to tell all sides of the story. Had it paid more heed to the fraught state of the claimant under the spotlight and the outcomes of previous criminal proceedings and litigation, it would probably have decided that this was a story it shouldn't touch with a barge pole. “


On 22 July, 2008 the ABC TV Media Watch programme attacked The Australian and other News Limited (Murdoch) papers for their position on this.  Media Watch  said a civil action by the complainant had only been settled in June, and that documents revealed there had only become available now.  But for most viewers this was news; if he had just settled his claim, what was his complaint?  


 On 23 July, The Australian suggested Media Watch was partial; it had not invited the newspaper to respond.


The question that Christopher Pearson raises is important. This is whether the resources of a taxpayer funded broadcaster should be used for such a constant daily campaign, and news and current affairs conscripted to this end. Has the ABC adequately answered this?


The ABC will say that it was raising a matter of public interest. The matter will no doubt be aired on this in the relevant Senate Estimates Committee where the Minister , Senator the Hon. Stephen  Conroy, and the Opposition spokesperson, Senator Concetta Fierravanti-Wells are usually in attendance.


Incidentally, Christopher Pearson was one of the few commentators who during the 1999 referendum campaign, was completely unashamed to proclaim his attachment to the existing constitution. In the Adelaide Review he coined the wonderful counsel to voters  “Annoy the media, vote No.”


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