Sunday, 17 March 2013

A free press is essential as are ethical standards of journalism

Much is being debated about the Commonwealth government's proposed media reforms. As I observed in parliament on the 12 March 2013 that "a free press is the cornerstone of democracy." I also observed that "the only real protection society has is that the published reports of journalists are respected and trusted and that their profession is constantly enhanced. Public interest requires adherence to ethical standards."

If those principles are correct then I don't understand why all the controversy. Even under the Commonwealth's proposal a media owner can use his media to express his opinion. 

However, having enforceable ethical standards apply to the profession of journalism enhances respect and public trust of what they publish. This is society's ultimate protection against oppression and to ensure freedom.

My speech given below is a minor example of the consequences of a young journalist trying to get an exclusive at the expense of ethics.

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Mr RON HOENIG (Heffron) [12.10 p.m.]: On 3 March 2013 the Sunday Telegraph, in a so-called exclusive by Taylor Auerbach, published an article entitled, "MP's son in Facebook racist rant". Taylor Auerbach is a school friend of my eldest 22-year-old son from Mount Sinai College in Maroubra—they have been friends since they were four years old. Taylor Auerbach, together with a number of former school friends, has kept in touch with my son since school and, at times, they communicate with each other via social media. My eldest son, thinking he was communicating privately—although in my view inappropriately—with his friends, one of those friends being Taylor Auerbach, and published his remarks. It goes without saying that none of his other friends' inappropriate remarks were published because they are not children of members of Parliament. My eldest son has been counselled. Comments of that nature, even in jest, are not acceptable. Both my sons have been warned in the past about being careful of what they place on social networking sites, even though they might believe it to be a private communication. It is not; nothing is totally private.

I have cross-examined police officers about private communications that they have had on social media that have been obtained by criminals. Taylor Auerbach should understand that "ratting out your mate" to try to get a personal advantage for yourself is not the Australian way. It is certainly not the Jewish way and not the values he was taught at Mount Sinai College. It goes without saying that he and my son are no longer "friends". Members of Parliament know that when they seek public office they will be subject to criticism in the popular press and from other avenues, including their political opponents. Being criticised is part of our job. However, the children of members of Parliament, even adult children, do not sign up for that. This place can be tough, but attacks on our families have always been out of bounds.

Those articles were followed up by the same tabloid with criticism of me that was substantially inaccurate, asserting falsely that I was, and I quote, "forced" to make a disclosure on a parliamentary return when the slightest inquiry would have revealed that it was completely voluntary. There were some other comments I allegedly made at an Australian Labor Party branch meeting that were portrayed as some type of revelation. Again, a quick check would show that my views have been published openly and repeatedly for some time, have been consistent with legal principles and views shared by many in the judiciary and the legal profession. When I signed up for public office I acknowledge that I also signed up for that type of criticism. But being criticised will not deter me from doing what I consider to be right along with standing up for principle, even when it is not popular to do so. I have done this for most of my working life as a public defender whilst representing people charged with the most heinous of crimes, and I have also done so as a mayor. I do not intend to stop now.

A free press is the cornerstone of democracy. The profession of journalism is essential to hold the three arms of government to account. It is more important now, as the shadows of falling circulation and advertising revenues loom large, and with journalists losing their jobs. But the role of a free press is not to fight to increase circulation and revenues by adopting more and more techniques of an irresponsible popular press. Sex and scandal sell only in the short term. The responsibility of a journalist is a grave one. The only real protection society has is that the published reports of journalists are respected and trusted and that their profession is constantly enhanced. Public interest requires adherence to ethical standards. Taylor Auerbach needs a lesson in ethics.

Whilst my eldest son has learnt his lesson, all young people and young adults should also learn from his experience. There are no private communications on social networking sites, even if you intend it to be so. Future employment and career prospects may well be hindered, as future employers may access private comments made years earlier. In this modern electronic era, it is not just the children of members of Parliament who should be cautioned: everybody should be.

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