Me­dia con­trols a non­sense

The Bulletin - - Opinion - ALEXAN­DER DOWNER Alexan­der Downer was Aus­tralian for­eign af­fairs min­is­ter in the Howard Coali­tion gov­ern­ment from 1996 to 2007. This col­umn was first pub­lished in The Ad­ver­tiser.

IN MY ex­pe­ri­ence, most politi­cians like to get plenty of me­dia cov­er­age. It makes sense for demo­crat­i­cally elected of­fi­cials to be get­ting their mes­sages out to the pub­lic.

They need to tell peo­ple what they are do­ing if they are part of the gov­ern­ment. And if they are part of the op­po­si­tion, they need to be telling a half-in­ter­ested pop­u­lace why they would do a bet­ter job than the cur­rent gov­ern­ment.

So me­dia cov­er­age is part of the ar­moury of pol­i­tics. If a politi­cian is adept at at­tract­ing me­dia cov­er­age, that’s a good thing. It’s part of what makes a politi­cian suc­cess­ful.

But there is another, much less ap­peal­ing as­pect of me­dia cov­er­age. It’s called fame. To be frank, many peo­ple like the idea. It ap­peals to their egos.

It makes them feel good. It makes them feel spe­cial, wanted and im­por­tant. It sets them aside from the ruck of hu­man­ity. When they wan­der through pub­lic spa­ces like air­ports or shop­ping malls, the pub­lic recog­nise them. They come up to them and ask for au­to­graphs or th­ese days, photographs usu­ally taken with a mo­bile phone.

I was at Heathrow air­port in Lon­don re­cently and four Aus­tralian girls came up to me and asked if I’d pose with them for a photo. I did. They seemed pleased to see me! The next day I was walk­ing down White­hall and a man called out “There’s that drop kick Downer”. Hm­mmm. I was a lit­tle less pleased.

A few days be­fore, I found my­self sit­ting next to Daniel Craig, of 007 fame, and his wife, Rachel Weisz.

I asked if I could have a photo with them. No, they said, we feel tired! Poor ba­bies!

Pub­lic fig­ures do have a good life, let’s face it. For the pow­er­ful, there’s the joy of be­ing able to make de­ci­sions which make a real dif­fer­ence. That more than off­sets the pain of me­dia crit­i­cism and ridicule.

And for me­dia celebri­ties, there’s the money; Fer­raris, hol­i­days at Cap Fer­rat, the apart­ment on Park Av­enue, ski­ing at Klosters and so on.

So a bit of me­dia in­tru­sion is a small price to pay for a great life.

Well, sud­denly, in the UK, there’s a cry from the rich and pow­er­ful that the me­dia should be con­strained and even con­trolled by law. The stars of the me­dia have cap­i­talised on an op­por­tu­nity.

It was given to them by the Lon­don-based Ru­pert Mur­do­chowned News of the World. It was caught hack­ing into the phones of well-known per­son­al­i­ties. Now that was wrong. It was against the law. So I wouldn’t try to de­fend it.

But un­der­stand ex­actly what hap­pened. The jour­nal­ists weren’t lis­ten­ing to con­ver­sa­tions.

What they did was get the phone num­bers of celebri­ties and ac­cessed their voice­mails. They could do that be­cause the own­ers of the voice­mails didn’t pro­tect their voice­mails with PIN num­bers. They could have but they couldn’t be both­ered.

The jour­nal­ists found some good yarns on the voice­mails. So they pub­lished them. In­cred­i­bly, the Bri­tish Gov­ern­ment re­acted by set­ting up a Royal Com­mis­sion - the Leve­son in­quiry - into the whole me­dia. It was a cir­cus. Politi­cians ad­mit­ted they wined and dined ed­i­tors! So what? Why wouldn’t they? And pretty quickly just about ev­ery fa­mous and pow­er­ful per­son in Bri­tain said the me­dia was mean to them. Boo hoo! Poor dar­lings!

Now they want to see more con­trols ex­er­cised over the me­dia.

For a start, the in­quiry cen­tred mostly on one news­pa­per. And the Leve­son in­quiry con­cluded that on the whole, the me­dia did a pretty good job.

But even so, Leve­son thought there ought to be more statu­tory reg­u­la­tion of the me­dia. So af­ter 300 years of free press, MPs in Bri­tain are now go­ing to look at cur­tail­ing free­dom of the press.

Free­dom of ex­pres­sion and free­dom of me­dia lie at the heart of our democ­racy. We shouldn’t have a bar of reg­u­la­tion. I may have been trashed year in and year out by the me­dia but that’s the price you pay for power. Pow­er­ful peo­ple should be sub­jected to de­bate and crit­i­cism . . . and plenty of ridicule so they don’t get too pompous!

I had my own ugly ex­pe­ri­ence of this in Cyprus. The emails of my ex­ec­u­tive as­sis­tant were hacked and pub­lished by a Cypriot news­pa­per.

Not one or two of them. Hun­dreds of them. It was much worse than any­thing the News of the World did.

She wept – and of­ten – about it. It caused her huge per­sonal pain and hu­mil­i­a­tion. The re­ac­tion?

A par­lia­men­tary in­quiry was set up not into the scan­dal of steal­ing pri­vate cor­re­spon­dence but into the con­tent of the emails!

But that’s the point. If some­one breaks the law, then they should pay the price (which they haven’t in Cyprus). But to start reg­u­lat­ing the me­dia is non­sense. It’s an at­tack on democ­racy. In the late 18th cen­tury, Bri­tain’s worst PM, Lord North, tried to ban news­pa­pers which crit­i­cised his gov­ern­ment. The pub­lic was out­raged. They even pulled Lord North out of his car­riage and beat him. His laws were re­pealed. You don’t have to go into pub­lic life. But if you do, you have to be pre­pared to fight your cor­ner not run to the par­lia­ment and change the law.

Daniel Craig and wife Rachel Weisz … too tired to take a photo with the pub­lic PHOTO: AP

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