In Australia there are three estates: the Executive, Legislative and Judiciary. Where these estates develop laws and enact them, journalism provides a unique role as the ‘fourth estate’. Its aim is to scrutinise and criticise these bodies of power to make sure they are working in the public interest. In their work, journalists aim to facilitate and protect the public sphere, enable diversity and equality of opinion, and provide transparency of authority.
As the Media, Entertainment and Arts Alliance (MEAA)’s Guidance Clause states, these values “often need interpretation” and can at times “come into conflict”. The MEAA ensures ethical journalism requires “conscientious decision-making in context” and only “substantial advancement of the public interest” will allow “any standard to be overridden”.
But who guarantees these standards are met? In Australia, journalists are self-regulated so various governing bodies provide ethical codes to follow. The MEAA’s Code of Ethics and other groups like the Press Council and Media Watch regulate Australian journalists. But in a feature unique to journalism, a journalist won’t be expelled from the profession if they fail to abide by these ethical standards. They may be considered ‘unethical’ but there would be no sanctions.
There would be sanctions though, if legal considerations were not met. Laws like defamation, contempt of court and racial vilification legislation relates to all citizens. But as journalists, there is a greater responsibility to understand and follow these laws. Where ministers have parliamentary privilege, journalists have no official protection. They must be extremely careful in what they report- especially in regards to defamation and contempt of court.
Defamation is a balance between the community’s right to a free press and an individual’s right to an undamaged reputation. Contempt of court covers a variety of inappropriate behaviour in the courtroom. In defamation/contempt of court trials, a journalist is judged on a criteria pertaining to how fair, accurate, balanced and honest their reportage was. The public status of the person reported on and the amount of harm done towards others is also considered. If a journalist is determined to have been fair, accurate and balanced in their work, they will be judged fairly in a courtroom.
As a group, we tried to follow these principles in our own reportage. We covered issues relating to the local, state and federal tiers of government in the interest of the Geelong residents.
As a Geelong resident myself, I didn’t have to look far for a local government news story. As a patron of the Pivotonian Cinema, previously located on Pakington Street, I was already interested in the issue of its relocation. Through previous conversations with other residents in the area, I already knew the main question surrounding the cinema was its future, specifically whether or not it would indeed reopen. Thus I decided to make this my angle.
Organising an interview has always been daunting for me but it was a surprisingly easy process this time around; maybe call it beginner’s luck. I emailed the Pivotonian cinema and they replied within the day, happy to have an interview. The only roadblock I encountered was in obtaining an interview with Village Cinemas. They declined to comment at this time, which I expected. If I had the chance again, I might have decided to interview some patrons of the cinema to hear their response, however I’m not sure how well this would have suited my angle.
The interview itself went really well. I met with the owners of the cinema at a local cafe and they were extremely helpful in providing any information I was after. It’s a small gesture but I think they were more forthcoming after I bought them coffee – a small price to pay.
The Geelong Advertiser is one of Geelong’s main papers, so it was the first place I looked when searching for a state government story. I discovered there had been a Myki debacle, in which many Geelong bus passengers had been overcharged 80 cents or more for their fare.
The first person I contacted for an interview was Victoria’s Public Transport Minister’s media liaison, Bob Neilson. I received a response via email immediately but Mr Neilson informed me the Minister’s “significant workload” and the “volume of requests” she receives from students meant she would be unable to speak to me. It was frustrating but Mr Neilson did encourage me to send through any questions I had. I did and he responded with a brief statement from the Minister.
I also wanted to hear the ‘voice’ of the residents affected. I contacted the Geelong branch of the Public Transport Users Association and spoke to its Convener Paul Westcott. He was happy to be interviewed and I spoke to him over the phone for half an hour. As he began to criticise Public Transport Victoria, I realised I would have to change my story angle.
I focused on the incompetence of Public Transport Victoria rather than the zoning error itself. I contacted PTV for a response but I did not receive a reply in time for submission. If I had been able to speak to the PTUA earlier, I might have been able to give PTV more time to provide a comment. In its place, I utilised the general statement from the Public Transport Minister in my article.
When writing the federal hard news story, I noticed one of Geelong’s Federal MP’s, Richard Marles, was also the Shadow Immigration and Border Protection Minister. He was newsworthy at the time, as he was the Minister who announced Labor’s controversial policy shift to turn back asylum seeker boats.
While I sought to speak to the Minister himself, I found this extremely difficult. I was able to find his media advisor’s contact number but when I called him, he made it obvious the Minister would not be available for comment as he’s a very busy senior MP. We were unable to organise a time, and while I could have perhaps been more assertive in trying to arrange an interview, I understood he was very busy. He had previously spoken in depth about the issue to other journalists so I utilised one of his media releases on the topic for my article.
I also wanted to show the position of a local refugee group. I got in contact with the Combined Refugee Action Group, which meets at the Geelong Trades Hall. I was able to arrange a phone interview with one of its co-convenors, Tim Gooden. The interview went very well, as Tim was knowledgeable and made some relevant statements.
When writing the article, I ensured the local angle was apparent by introducing the Shadow Minister in my first sentence. I also made sure I didn’t include any quotes from Mr Gooden that were defamatory while still showing both sides of the debate.
As journalist Reged Ahmad said, journalism is “one pillar of a healthy and functioning democracy”. When journalists are accurate, fair and balanced- and work in the public interest- they are successful in their position as the fourth estate. But while they’re scrutiny of authority is of high importance in the Australian political system, it is essential journalists remain ethically and legally sound in all reportage.