Freedom From the Press

Another Falconio/intrusive media rant that I understand is to be submitted for publication under my name. Actual authorship is another question, but it certainly reflects my views very closely:

There is nothing more dangerous than the wrath of the media scorned. So now it’s revenge! Joanne Lees will be hunted down like Osama bin Laden and ‘Nick’ subjected to torture by media. Why? Because Ms Lees refused to play the media game a game by the way where all goal posts are placed by the media.

Her crime? The Yorkshire lass who set off for the trip of a lifetime had the misfortune to become a victim of crime, then a victim of media speculation.

What’s worse, she didn’t take a media handling course before she was catapaulted into this extraordinary nightmare.

What’s worse still, she committed some additional crimes (that only 90 per cent of today’s youth would identify with): she took recreational drugs and had an affair that has sent the tabloids into a self-righteous frenzy as if we all lived in monasteries.

The media pursuit shows what happens when victims become fodder for circulation figures, with the tabloid pack turning feral and destroying the life of someone deserving of our sympathy.

Journalists chant like a broken record about the public’s right to know, the right to free speech, and the need for open justice. The ‘freedom of the press’ sounds wonderful but was this concept invented with antagonistic bureaucracies in mind or stubborn victims?

The media’s rights, after all, were not meant to be self-serving. They are not a right to entertain or a right to curiosity. As the Australian Press Council said in a 1976 discussion paper, the freedom of the press is the freedom of the public to be informed and entails obligations. In concentrating only on the media’s rights, journalists may do well to ponder on American jurist Oliver Wendell Holmes’ remark: ‘My right to fling out my arm ends where your nose begins’.

Put another way, the media’s power, presumably, is well-exercised when it exposes corruption, autocracy and hypocrisy. Ironically, perhaps, it now seems there are times when it is the power of the media we need protection from. Not the actions of individual, hard-working journalists, but the collective power of modern society’s most powerful institution which brings its prying lenses to bear on the unwilling, the unprepared, and the non-media friendly.

It’s hard at the moment to work out which would be the worse choice for Joanne Lees: living in a police state or a media state.

What public interest is served by her spending three years, and now presumably many more, being hounded by the tabloids, having to move home repeatedly to escape them, and being bombarded with hundreds of obsequious offers for exclusive interviews?

The issue here is the right to privacy, which is just as important as the public’s right to know. The right to privacy is one of a democracy’s givens and the media expose police and bureaucrats who invade it. Even media barons invoke it. But the ‘media machine’, fuelled by its ratings-driven news desks, seems less reflective about its responsibilities.

Let’s not forget: Joanne is not a pop star, she is not a politician, she hasn’t courted publicity – ever. It has found her. She was thrust totally unprepared into it at a time of vulnerability.

Yes, performing for the cameras in Darwin may have solved an immediate pressure point for Joanne and satisfied the media for a week. But for how long? How does she return to the obscurity she craves when her image is almost as well-known as the Queen’s or Saddam Hussein? How can she ever become a Yorkshire lass again instead of an outback mystery novel. What employer would take on someone who travels with a gaggle of media hanging off her every move.

The media are critical she granted one exclusive interview. Joanne told the court this was to rekindle publicity at a time when the investigation into Peter Falconio’s disappearance had stalled. She has refused all other offers, despite armies of media being deployed to convince her otherwise.

The media are critical of the level of protection offered to Joanne. What comes first: the chicken or the egg. The protection or the threat. Yes, most witnesses arrive at court (an intimidating experience in itself) by the front door, but few are confronted by a wall of cameras. The level of protection offered to Joanne presumably is a reaction to the level of intrusion. Just as in normal circumstances a fence will keep out a trespasser but in extraordinary circumstances 100 police may be required to keep out angry demonstrators.

Joanne Lees’ crime is seems, is wanting at all costs to protect her privacy, to have some control over the way her face is splashed over the media around the world as if she were everyone’s public property, her image perpetually tied to Falconio murder headlines.

The other tragedy, maybe, is that most media are responsible and thoughtful people who take their craft seriously. Many care about, in fact promote, victims’ causes. As always, however, it is the actions of the panting few who maybe are both the cause and effect of Joanne’s desperate evasive tactics in Darwin. After three years as the prey of poking and prying tabloids, no wonder Joanne doesn’t want a bar of them.

Perhaps the quote of the week goes to a British journalist interviewed on the ABC’s Stateline. Roger Maynard, a veteran reporter from the London Times (one of those empathetic to Joanne’s plight and who was not accompanied by a photographer), told of standing up in court to make an application on behalf of his media colleagues.

“It was one of the most terrifying processes of my life,” he said.

Maybe a chink of an insight into what it might have been like for Joanne Lees.

Oh, and by the way, did anyone remember there was a defendant in this case?

About Ken Parish

Ken Parish is a legal academic, with research areas in public law (constitutional and administrative law), civil procedure and teaching & learning theory and practice. He has been a legal academic for almost 20 years. Before that he ran a legal practice in Darwin for 15 years and was a Member of the NT Legislative Assembly for almost 4 years in the early 1990s.
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2024 years ago

Very well said indeed Ken.

James Russell
James Russell
2024 years ago

to be submitted for publication under my name. Actual authorship is another question


2024 years ago

The media like to carry on about their rights.

But every right should also be balanced by a responsibility. If the media refuse to act in a responsible manner, why should special rights be granted to them?

2024 years ago

Cracking article.

David Tiley
2024 years ago

Oh yes. Is Ken fronting this because the real owner fears the media?

Ron Mead
Ron Mead
2024 years ago

An excellent article. Congratulations for identifying with it so closely, Ken. I agree with just about everything in it. Perhaps except for the bit where it says “…most media are responsible and thoughtful people who take their craft seriously”. I’ve seen little evidence of this.

Interesting how it’s always the “tabloid press” that gets the blame for this sort of thing. The SMH was one of the worst offenders, the article by Phillip Cornford in Saturday’s edition was an utter disgrace to the so-called reporter, his editor and the whole Fairfax organisation. The sooner the Herald changes the shape of the paper to that of the Telegraph the sooner its shape will reflect its true nature.

Ron Mead
Ron Mead
2024 years ago

Ken, your unscrutable commentary about authorship and publication raises an interesting question about referencing sources etc. If you’re not careful some luvvie will start accusing you of plagiarism, which as you know has overtaken genocide as their “crime du jour”. I can just see David Marr ambitiously extending his reach to the blogosphere.

2024 years ago

Although I largely agree, I think Lees must share some small blame for the media scrum. She shouldn’t have accepted $130,000 to be interviewed. By doing so she has profited from her connection with the murder. She was intrumental in putting herself in the public domain, at least partly for material gain.

2024 years ago

Excellent article, whoever wrote it.

2024 years ago

Well, H., I guess she’s learnt her lesson now, eh? (Fear the Greeks bearing gifts…)

Ken, what did you mean by “actual authorship…”? Through much of the article it seems very close to your style, occasionally heading far-out into the weird and wonderful world of smartarsery which you don’t normally inhabit… was it co-written? Written in an attempt to imitute you exarctly? Inquiring minds are mildly curious…

2024 years ago

wrestling with greasy media pigs

“And so my education had taken me pretty much as far as it could. I started out as an ambitious young woman inspired by politics and the media. I’ve ended up disenchanted with both. If I had been an ambitious…