I’ve been frying other fish for the last two working days, so can only now sit down to write about the Pauline Hanson photos. In the meantime, it has emerged that the photographs might not even be of her.

It has also been suggested that she leaked them.

None of that matters, really, when it comes to the ethics of the decision to buy and publish them. It was an outrageous thing to do – totally indefensible, and the various lame and self-interested attempts to justify the publication by Robyn Riley among others are nothing short of pathetic.

How is what a political candidate did in the privacy of a bedroom when she was a teenager any business of ours? No laws were broken. No hypocrisy has been exposed. There is no public interest.

But most of what can be said about the outrageousness of this publication has already been said by others. I want to draw attention to some wider, grave implications.

It is no secret that at the moment the higher courts are gagging for test cases on privacy, and the Australian Law Reform Commission report on the matter is in play. This could lead to real legal restrictions on what the media can publish. But how will the media look arguing against such restrictions when it publishes photos like this, with no good reason whatsoever other than titillation?

And what about the poor old Australian Press Council? News Limited is the biggest single provider of funds to the Council. News Limited claims to respect and be guided by its principles. Well, the  Council  has  a fair bit to say about privacy:

1. Collection of personal information

In gathering news, journalists should seek personal information only in the public interest.

In doing so, journalists should not unduly intrude on the privacy of individuals and should show respect for the dignity and sensitivity of people encountered in the course of gathering news.

Public figures necessarily sacrifice their right to privacy, where public scrutiny is in the public interest. However, public figures do not forfeit their right to privacy altogether. Intrusion into their right to privacy must be related to their public duties or activities.

Similar sentiments are expressed in just about every ethical code applying to journalism, including News Limited’s own Code of Professional Conduct.

So will we see the Press Council admonish News Limited? I hope so, whether or not a complaint is received. If not, why not?

As for News Limited, I wonder whether CEO John Hartigan was consulted before these pictures were published, and how he feels it reflects on the Right to Know campaign that he has spearheaded. The Right to Know campaign argues against restrictions on freedom of speech. It is an admirable venture, although I won’t be the first to point out that it has concentrated on freedom more than on the responsibility that goes with it.

The fact that News Limited has published these pictures would suggest that the notion that freedom entails responsibility is not widely understood within the organisation.

I’d say that News Limited has just handed the enemies of media freedom a giant free kick. It has undermined its own campaign, its own moral standing and its own authority at a crucial time. Given that for all its faults, News Limited is one of our main defenders of press freedom, we all may live to regret this stupid, craven act of publication.

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