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The Hanson affair

May 12, 2011

(Originally published 09/09/2010)

On 15 March 2009, The Sunday Telegraph ran a series of salacious photographs the newspaper claimed were of the former One Nation Party leader Pauline Hanson when she was a teenager.  In a matter of days, the story and photographs were exposed as false, shaming and embarrassing The Sunday Telegraph to the point where the editor, Neil Breen, published an apology to Ms Hanson a week later.   Key issues that arose from this controversy include whether The Sunday Telegraph verified the validity of their sources, whether the paper broke any privacy laws with the publication of this story, and how the ethics concerned with the publication of such a story relate to public interest.  Also brought into question is how one of the largest-selling newspapers in the country could be so easily fooled by a hoax.

The photographs in question were released by a man named Jack Johnson, who claimed he was romantically involved with Ms Hanson in the 1970s.  Johnson claimed he and a friend were digitising old photos when the two came across the photographs and decided to sell them to the paper.  The Sunday Telegraph ran the photographs as front page news, with two of them dominating three quarters of the entire front page.  It is evident that The Sunday Telegraph believed they had substantial proof that the woman in the photographs was indeed Ms Hanson and were not afraid to dive in to the story.  It was later revealed that Johnson had convinced the paper to believe this.  There were a number of claims from the source that The Sunday Telegraph neglected to verify, including that the photographs had been taken at the Pelican Bay Resort between 1975 and 1977.  It was later revealed that “the Coffs Harbour Pelican Beach Resort did not open until 1986” (The Daily Telegraph, 16 March 2009).  Not only did the paper get the name of the location at which these photographs were claimed to have been taken wrong, but they also neglected to investigate whether the resort in question had even existed.  The Sunday Telegraph reported that Johnson was “a former army commando”, who “spent 18 years in the army” (The Sunday Telegraph, 15 March 2009).  However, in the days following the story’s publication, The Herald Sun, another News Ltd. paper that printed the same story, reported that “no army representative contacted has any knowledge or recollection of Johnson” (The Herald Sun, 22 March 2009).  It is clear that The Sunday Telegraph did not research the facts of the story thoroughly enough before publication, or consider the potential ramifications for all parties involved.  Such obvious falsifications had been overlooked.  With little investigation, the aforementioned falsifications would have raised concern to the journalist and the editor involved, possibly concern enough to not run the story as hastily as it was. The Sunday Telegraph took Jack Johnson on his word, which as far as professional practice issues go, was a mistake.

By publishing these photographs and the corresponding story, was The Sunday Telegraph employing a good sense of journalistic principle, ethics and responsibility?  The Australian Press Council says “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…”.  (APC) The photographs published were, at the time, thought to be of Pauline Hanson.  However, the photographs, had they been real, would have been taken when Hanson was approximately 19 years old.  The photographs were of a young girl, taken in a private indoor setting.  If one considers the view of the APC, this was a gross invasion of Ms Hanson’s privacy.  It appears that the journalist and the editor did not take in to account the effect the photographs and story would have on Ms Hanson’s dignity and image, as there would have been far more consideration as to whether the story should have been published at all.  Not only did The Sunday Telegraph break one of the APC’s Statement of Principles, but it also broke one of the Media Alliance’s Code of Ethics:  “Present pictures and sound which are true and accurate” (Media Entertainment and Arts Alliance).  The fact that The Sunday Telegraph broke two standards of the bodies that give guidance and instruction on the application of media responsibilities indicates that there was a serious lack of judgement towards applying good journalistic principles, ethics and responsibility in the coverage of this story.

The Sunday Telegraph took a pre-emptive strike that readers would see the publication as an intrusion of privacy.  Robyn Riley, a columnist for the paper, wrote on the day the story broke “Public people are public property whether they like it or not… her ideals, opinions, behaviour and beliefs must be scrutinised”. (The Sunday Telegraph, March 15)  Riley’s view was that once someone is in the public eye, they forfeit any rights to privacy once had as an ordinary citizen.  Obviously The Sunday Telegraph also shared this same view on the matter.  However, in an APC Statement of Principles:  “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.” (APC) In this instance, The Sunday Telegraph cannot defend their intrusion into Ms Hanson’s privacy on the grounds that the intrusion was in relation to the public duties or activities of Ms Hanson.  As previously mentioned, at the time the photos were taken Ms Hanson would have been 19 years old.  However, Ms Hanson did not become a politician until 1994, aged 40.  The fact that Ms Hanson did not start her public duties or activities for a further 21 years after the photographs were alleged to have been taken means that these photographs, in the view of the APC, were not of public interest.  However, even if the photographs were taken while she was in the public eye as a politician, they would still not be in the public interest.  In addition, from a perspective of Australian privacy law, the photographs in question were taken during a private activity.  A private activity is deemed such when “Parties should reasonably assume that it will be observed only by themselves” (Australian Surveillance Legislation).  Therefore, by publishing the photographs, The Sunday Telegraph breached this legislation, and published a private activity which may find them in trouble with the law should Ms Hanson choose to sue for defamation.

After examining the Sunday Telegraphs coverage of the Pauline Hanson photographs, it is evident that the paper neglected in its journalistic responsibilities.  Responsibilites such as verifying sources, maintaining journalistic principle and ethics and keeping in line with the law are all essential ingredients in producing credible and responsible journalism.  In keeping with these responsibilities, the Sunday Telegraph failed and so inevitably ended up in the problem it is in now.

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