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The sad truth about the morality of our media

Martin Flanagan
December 3, 2011


An employee looks at a copy of the final edition of British tabloid the News of the World. Photo: Reuters

THIS year I am giving an award for the single best line I've read in a newspaper in the past 12 months. The winner, Allison Pearson, writes for the British conservative newspaper The Daily Telegraph. Her subject? The Leveson inquiry on the media.


Earlier this year, I saw firsthand how sections of the Australian media behaved in relation to a death that became a public matter - what they got wrong, what they distorted. A woman journalist from a Melbourne commercial television station appeared inside the house of the bereaved wife the morning after the fatality, advancing towards her beneath a mask of make-up in an executive suit saying she would ''like to do a lovely story on your husband''. To use such a cliche at such a moment is gross.


The British media and the Australian media operate within the one moral universe. If the worst of what has happened in Britain - most notably, the media treatment of the parents of kidnapped toddler Madeleine McCann - has no parallel in Australia, it doesn't mean it couldn't happen here. What it comes down to are the cultures of the various media organisations, to what is deemed acceptable conduct, what is encouraged and what a blind eye is turned to.


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Last month, it was reported that News International's former chief executive in Britain, Rebekah Brooks, was expecting a baby by a surrogate mother. Initially, the surrogate mother was carrying twins but it was reported that one of the embryos had died. In the Telegraph, Pearson outlined what Ms Brooks could expect if she was given the News of the World treatment.


The hounds, wrote Pearson, would be unleashed ''to track down the surrogate mother and harass the poor woman for mawkish details about the dead baby (boy or girl?). Information could be obtained by hacking Rebekah's phone Rebekah would be invited - nicely - to confirm the story and then warned - not nicely - to expect something far worse if she didn't co-operate Meanwhile, hacks would find the fertility clinic and 'encourage' members of staff to divulge private medical details Then, conveniently, a 'friend' of Rebekah's would confide to a journalist that a randomly chosen soap star was 'the baby's donor father'. Easy, isn't it? Anyone with a lively imagination and no moral sense can have a go.''


In one respect, I disagree. I don't believe it takes a lively imagination. It's a racket and, as with all rackets, all you have to do is learn how it works.


No one, it seems, has been treated more abysmally by the British media than the McCanns. Earlier this week, wrote Pearson, Gerry McCann explained to ''an astonished inquiry that he and his wife, Kate, had to take legal action against a paper which said they had 'sold Maddie into white slavery' to solve financial difficulties! Then there was the News of the World executive who promised to publish a positive piece to mark the first anniversary of Madeleine's abduction and instead ran pages from Kate's anguished, personal diaries, without her permission, after apparently obtaining them from the Portuguese police.''


Then came the single best line of 2011: '' 'Is there a journalist's byline on that article?' thundered Lord Justice Leveson, who is starting to wear the aghast look of a missionary observing his first Aztec sacrifice.''


Nowadays, nobody thinks Aztec sacrifices were just something that happened between the Aztec priests and the victims whose hearts they cut out. Our idea of Aztec sacrifices extends to the crowds who stood and stared, who drank it up as a spectacle, who either believed they couldn't stop it or didn't care and are thus remembered as being part of the barbaric practice.


Martin Flanagan is a senior writer.


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