When Melbourne’s Channel Seven network broke the news last week that players at a Melbourne based Australian Football League (AFL) club were receiving therapy for illegal drug use and that a leading player from the same club had been investigated for drug trafficking they rapidly became the pariah of the Australian news media.
Not surprisingly, the AFL and the AFL Players Association (AFLPA) both strongly condemned the actions of the station, with the AFLPA slapping a ban on the station, and injunctions being sought and granted to prevent the network from revealing the names of the players or further identifying the club.
Rival media organisations and commentators looking to gain favour with the AFL quickly whipped themselves into a frenzy in their attempts to use the most condemning superlatives they could think of to criticise the actions of Dylan Howard who broke the story, as well as the network.
While some journalists supported the network, others were pathetic in the way they bent over backwards to endear themselves to the players and the AFL.
Rival media take a swipe
Of particular note is Herald-Sun columnist and ultra conservative puritan Andrew Bolt, who waxed lyrical in his column arguing against the publics right to know and labelling the Channel Seven story as “shabby.”
According to Mr Bolt, Seven’s “duty” lay “in seeing that private medical records stayed private, and in returning them to their owners.”
What an absolutely ridiculous statement for a journalist to make. Perhaps Mr Bolt would prefer to write his news from press release handouts or interviews organised by PR spin-doctors. That’s sure to give the Australian public an unbiased perspective, not.
The broad condemnation of both the story and the reporter behind it only serve to highlight the degree to which the “news” that is dished up to Australians is sanitised and manipulated, and the lack of independence the news media has.
The fact that the story had supposedly been offered to three rival media organisations and they declined to run it only further highlights the sad state of affairs of the Australian news media.
This is compounded by Channel Seven and the Herald-Sun’s decision on Tuesday to abandon the challenge to the late night injunction gained by the AFL and the AFLPA after the story broke.
The comments and actions of Channel Seven’s rivals is also interesting, if not bewildering.
Drug use in the AFL has been an ongoing story for the last three years. Despite broad criticism of its three-strike rule, the AFL and its patronising AFLPA has steadfastly refused to adopt a zero tolerance stance similar to that taken by other Australian sporting codes including the New South Wales Rugby League (NSWRL).
According to the AFL and the AFLPA, the Seven network breached the players’ privacy by purchasing documents that had allegedly been found in the street.
Players’ action overlooked
This stance by both the AFL and the AFLPA is self serving and nothing more than an attempt to protect those who have broken the law, protect the revenue stream for the forthcoming finals series and to deflect the increasing negative publicity the sport is attracting over players using illegal drugs.
While both the AFL and the AFLPA freely lambasted the network, neither condemned the actions of the players or the club involved.
When the Victorian Health Minister weighed into the matter, also criticising the network, she joined a growing group of people who dodged the primary issue.
Channel Seven is not responsible for protecting the rights or privacy of anyone. Its job is to report on news.
The person who breached the confidentiality of the players and the club are the owners of the clinic administering the treatment. They are the ones with the duty of care to ensure patient records are kept securely.
While Seven identified the club, it didn’t reveal the names of the players. So where is the breach of personal privacy?
It also sought and gained confirmation from the Victorian Police that a leading player from that club had been the subject of a drug investigation earlier this year.
While media organisations in Australia are happy to splash the names of international sporting stars detected of drug abuse across their pages or in their broadcasts, when it comes to the AFL many rapidly back away.
If drug abuse is a problem in any sporting code it ought to be a concern to everyone, not the least being the AFL.
The AFL’s actions in this latest matter have been extraordinary to say the least. Instead of investigating the club and its players, it chose to shoot the messenger.
Perhaps because the revelations by Channel Seven served nothing more but to highlight that the AFL’s much-lauded drug screening program isn’t adequate enough.
Whether Channel Seven paid for the documents or not is also immaterial. The network obtained the accusing documents, verified the information contained in it to the best of its ability and ran the story.
An examination of the online FairfaxDigital Australian rules football blog-site, www.realfooty.com.au, along with several other bulletin boards, shows that many people believe drug use in the AFL is an issue that ought to be brought into the open.
Many of the posts show that football followers of all codes were interested in the story, with many supporting the networks right to broadcast the news. Many also took the view that professional sports-people, who are held up as role models, loose the right to privacy in matters such as drug use.
Clear-cut double standard
The most strident and vocal opposition to the Channel Seven story on the www.realfooty.com.au blog-site came from members/supporters of the Hawthorn Football Club. These same people were no-where near as vocal earlier this year when West Coast Eagle Ben Cousins’ drug rehabilitation treatment was front-page news.
The charging of the people who sold the documents to Seven with “theft by finding” is another interesting twist to the story. It would be interesting to find out when the last such charges were laid against anyone.
It will also be interesting to see if any action is taken against the owners of the clinic who failed to keep the records safe and secure in the first place.
One can only wonder if the same actions would have resulted if the medical documents had referred to a politician, a judge, lawyer or school teacher.
Would a ban by school teachers, judges or lawyers on speaking to a specific news organisation have seen so many news commentators falling over themselves in an attempt to condemn the actions of those who broke the story?
Would people then have argued so passionately that what Seven had done was wrong?
One can’t help feeling not.
In the meantime, Australians should feel safe and secure in the knowledge that their daily news diet has been well scrutinised and sanitised so as not to offend.
And if you happen to walk down the street and come across a draft of John Howard’s resignation speech, or a police or medical report with details that your children’s’ school principle is a suspected crack-smoking paedophile, don’t expect any support from the media. Your duty is to protect the privacy of that person and return the documents.
This whole episode has shown that “freedom of the press” is just another outdated catch-cry that even many who work in the industry don’t subscribe to anymore.
Big business, professional associations and spin-doctors take note. Prepare your press releases carefully and diligently deliver them to news organisations. The people who select the news Australians read every day welcome them.
And if anything negative should happen to be written about your group or clients, just impose a ban on the news organisation concerned and race off to the Victorian Supreme Court to have your rights to privacy protected and the role of the Australian news media hamstrung further.
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He has spent extensive periods of time working in Africa and throughout Southeast Asia, with stints in the Middle East, the USA, and England.
He has covered major world events including Operation Desert Shield/ Storm, the 1991 pillage in Zaire, the 1994 Rwanda genocide, the 1999 East Timor independence unrest, the 2004 Asian tsunami, and the 2009, 2010, and 2014 Bangkok political protests.
In 1995 he was a Walkley Award finalist, the highest awards in Australian journalism, for his coverage of the 1995 Zaire (now Democratic Republic of Congo) Ebola outbreak.
Most recently he was the Thailand editor/ managing editor of AEC News Today . Prior to that he was the deputy editor and Thailand and Greater Mekong Sub-region editor for The Establishment Post, predecessor of Asean Today.
In the mid-80s and early 90s he owned JLF Promotions, the largest above and below the line marketing and PR firm servicing the high-technology industry in Australia. It was sold in 1995.
Opinions and views expressed on this site are those of the author’s only. Read more at About me
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