Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Hartigan apologies over fake Hanson photos

News Ltd’s Australian CEO has admitted his newspapers were wrong to publish nude photos they falsely claimed to be Pauline Hanson. Speaking at an Australian Right to Know coalition conference in Sydney, John Hartigan said there were two tests of judgement the editor had to make when publishing the photos. Firstly, were they in the public interest and was it an invasion of her privacy. And secondly were the photos genuine. “Regrettably, it failed the test,” he said.

I assume by that last remark, Hartigan means it failed the second test. However, without seeing the transcript of the speech, I am not sure if he addressed the News Ltd failings on the first point. Because even if the 30 year old photos were genuine (which they are not), it is arguable that they were a strong invasion of privacy. And as lawyer Helen Dale argues, this matter could be the test case which has the potential to lead to the development of a tort of invasion of privacy in Australia.

The photos, published on 15 March, also failed the public interest part of the test. Why is it important what Hanson was doing when she was a teenager? The initial News Ltd answer to that question was “That's for our readers to tell. That will be determined by the number of people that buy the paper.” The speaker, Helen McCabe (deputy editor of the Sunday Telegraph) had made the old mistake of confusing the public interest with matters of interest to the public. The impact of titillation on circulation had trumped ethical responsibility.

But while the boss was apologising yesterday, Hartigan’s minions were muddying the waters about who was responsible for the mess. The News Ltd stable was claiming yesterday that doubts had “emerged” about Jack Johnson’s credibility. They were also blaming the middleman who put Johnson in touch with the Sunday Telegraph. According to this week’s Media Watch, Johnson began his move into the public eye a few weeks ago when he was searching for someone to buy his photos. The man he found was Sydney’s most notorious paparazzo Jamie Fawcett.

Fawcett met Johnson and showed interest in the photos. He commissioned veteran British tabloid journalist Frank Thorne to interview Johnson and write a story to sell with the pictures. Johnson had demanded anonymity from Fawcett but Thorne told him [Johnson] this was impossible. During the interview Johnson also made the ludicrous claim he had destroyed compromising photos of Therese Rein. Thorne was becoming suspicious and tried to tell Fawcett of his concerns. But Fawcett went ahead anyway and emailed the fake Hanson images to News Ltd, which they published a day later without checking any of the key facts. Fawcett promised Johnson $10,000 for selling the photos.

A day later, Hanson denied the photos were of her and the story quickly unravelled. In an interview with Sydney’s 2UE radio breakfast program last week, Sunday Telegraph editor Neil Breen said: “I knew on Saturday when I had those photos and I knew that if I published something like that and they're wrong then I'm in huge trouble.” They also withheld payment of the $10,000 to Johnson until he could provide them the original slides. Johnson has not yet obliged.

This week, the Sydney Sunday Telegraph took a very late decision to admit it was in the wrong. Neil Breen spoke directly to Hanson: I’ve said all week that I’d be the first person to apologise to you if you if it were proven the pictures we published last weekend were not of you. I am now convinced we have the proof they were presented to us as part of an elaborate con. So Pauline, I am sorry. We should never have published them."

The Sunday Herald-Sun also printed an apology. They say the paper was conned by Johnson and Fawcett but admitted “that does not absolve us of responsibility for the decision to publish the photographs.” The paper called it a serious error of judgement and accepted they did not check basic facts about the photographs and Johnson’s background prior to publication. “We acknowledge Ms Hanson was right all along - and we were wrong,” said the Melbourne paper.

But in the same edition, the Herald-Sun launched the counter-attack against Johnson. They said Jack Johnson not only offered the faux-photos of Hanson to “paparazzi agent Jamie Fawcett”, but also offered similar photographs of Kevin Rudd’s wife Therese Rein in exchange for cash. Rein was supposedly posing in lingerie next to the Sultan of Brunei - a claim, says the paper, “that was plainly ridiculous”. They painted Johnson as a loser: “a desperate figure who lives on a public-housing estate in western Sydney”.

The Sunday Telegraph went further and plastered a picture of Johnson on their front page. They also said that Fawcett did not disclose the information about the supposed Rein photos to The Telegraph. “If he did,” they said, “the paper's approach to the pictures would have been quite different.” But my guess is that the paper didn’t want to investigate too hard. They were happy knowing they were onto a circulation winner once they combined the themes of “Hanson” and “nude”. Johnson is now a convenient whipping boy for their gamble.

Andrew Landeryou is also keen to blame Johnson for the debacle. On Vexnews he claims the fake Hanson pictures are sourced from a 1982 Danish porn magazine. The female’s name is not known but she apparently appeared alongside an actor whose stage name was “Long Dong Silver”. While the provenance of the name is obvious, Landeryou coyly suggests he would “rather not know.” However he is more straightforward in defending the Telegraph for printing the photos. “Those keen to denigrate the Sunday Tele…should consider carefully whether it is the criminal who is to blame in a fraud case or the victim of the fraud,” he said. “The newspaper’s mistake should be kept in proportion.” No, Andrew - the mistake is perfectly in proportion; it is, like Long Dong, a whopper.

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