One of the sideshows during the aftermath of the Black Saturday bushfires last year was the news that an ABC Lateline journalist, Rafael Epstein, had been questioned amd might be charged with breaching police road blocks. Read here for the coverage at the time.
Tonight I hear that the matter was sent to the Victorian Magistrates Diversion program. As a result, Epstein (who now works for The Age)and Lateline have agreed to issue an apology. The charges will not proceed, and no conviction has been recorded.
Here’s the text of the apology:
“I would like to make the following statement. On the 23rd and 24th of Feb 2009, I was employed by the ABC. In the course of a follow-up investigation into the human effects of the Kinglake bushfires, I deliberately entered an area which I knew to be restricted by the Coroner. I acknowledge that this was wrongful. I also recognise that this was insensitive to local residents and bushfire victims. I apologise to local residents and and to police working in the area. I do wish to stress that my intention was to provide constructive and responsible coverage. I was chastened to learn that my actions were seen by insensitive by some in Kinglake, and I will certainly bear that in mind in future.”
Some of the context for this might be found in the excellent report by Denis Muller and Michael Gawenda issued last year and reported on Crikey on this blog. That report found, among many other things, that there was insufficient agreement on ethical standards among journalists on issues such as whether it was permissible to ignore or evade road blocks. Some regarded it as acceptable to use deception to get through.
“This is a vivid illustration of the state of mind many journalists bring to their work. They genuinely believe that they are acting honourably and for the greater good. For a person in this state of mind, those who seek to hinder them are hindering the greater good. It is important to understand the sincerity with which this attitude is held, and its importance as a driver in some of the best journalistic work.”
But it is also the case, the report said, that journalists are often not trained or equipped properly to weigh their understanding of the duty to disclose against other public interest considerations.
These are concrete ethical questions to which the media’s codes of ethics give only the most abstract – and sometimes ambiguous – attention,”
Those things remain true today.