Passing Bull 306 –The public interest and the press

About fifty years ago, the ALP was in government federally and in real trouble.  Jim Cairns as Treasurer was vulnerable to the press at the best of times.  He was even more vulnerable for having an affair with a person of influence – Junie Morosi.  It was open season to a voracious press most of whom were against the ALP.  Was this reportage in ‘the public interest’?  Or was the press being salacious as a tool for revenge – or for money?  Or some of all three?

The status of the public interest was aired in court back then.  Its standing in law is still unsettled – and not just in the law.  It is a very broad term.  At one end it might sound dangerously like the national interest of Hitler or Stalin – or the raison d’état of Louis XIV.  At the other end it may sound dangerously like pandering to the voyeur or those who like the boobs on page three.

There is a first-class discussion of this by Martin McKenzie-Murray in The Saturday Paper. 

Luke Beveridge is a respected AFL coach who looks after his players.  He recently dropped his guard at a press conference and he later apologised.  The journalist then got fired for offensive behaviour to a colleague.  The press were all on his side before that came to light.  It is well known that some players have trouble with mental health.  We have also seen a sea change in coaching – from the dictatorial to the paternalist.  Beveridge has been in the forefront of this change.  He was acting to protect the players, but the press thought he was wrong and some thought he had problems of his own.

Where was the public interest?  The press corps looks to be about four times what it could be.  That will produce hunger and slippage.  Morris looked to me to smirk at his own view of himself. 

Mr McKenzie-Murray does not hold back.

Morris was a shallow and self-regarding scavenger of bins – more an ibis with private schoolboy connections than Bob Woodward.  He was – like many footy reporters – a simple gossip-monger, more enthralled by their status than the game ….

I often smell the same desperate appeals to exceptionalism from journalists.  And maybe some believe it – that because they’re a journalist, they can do and write whatever and believe that it’s all valuable by definition.  The self-regard of a Tom Morris is both too great and too fragile to broker self-reflection – why act or think in such a way that might puncture your sense of exceptionalism?

I congratulate the paper and the journalist.

Neil McPhee QC knew more about all this than most.  About forty years ago, I asked Neil why libel verdicts were going through the roof.  ‘Geoff, it’s hard to tell the jury that you are there for freedom of speech when you are being paid – handsomely – by Kerry Packer, Rupert Murdoch, Christopher Skase or Alan Bond.’  Or Kerry Stokes. 

Hands up all those who think that any of those guys was not in it for the dollar, but for a disinterested commitment to the public interest.  And then ask the same question of those in this shockingly over-serviced press corps – who need to do something just to stay in the shark pool and get paid and put food on the table. 

Then ask the ordinary punter.  Do you support freedom of speech?  Why not?  How do you feel about Rupert or Auntie being able to roll over you and crush you at will?

But the press won again and persuaded state governments – most if not all ALP – to give them even more protection.  And yet they still grizzle.  Well, I have acted on either side for fifty years, and I have a settled view about where the balance of power and decency lies – and which is the only side I might lose sleep for.  And it’s not Rupert or Auntie.

AFL – press – freedom of speech – greed – public interest.

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