Thursday, March 26

Pot calls kettle black. The Sunday Telegraph still doesn't get it

What an extraordinary grovel by Rupert Murdoch's Sydney Sunday Telegraph the other morning. And in the paragraphs I've highlighted, what extraordinary hypocrisy!

Last Saturday night, Sunday Telegraph editor Neil Breen still hadn't grasped the key issue.

Some of us interested in the ethical standards of newspapers could maintain that Breen himself “lost any integrity he may have had” when he decided to publish photographs he believed were taken during a long-ago tryst between Pauline Hanson and some sleazy nobody. The rest of the Murdoch Sunday newspapers should be equally ashamed.
It's also a bit rich to accuse a pathetic nobody of losing "any integrity he may have had" when the same article says he is suffering from mental deterioration and of "having a tenuous hold on reality".
So the pictures were fakes. It's now accepted the photographs showed someone other than Ms Hanson, and Breen admits it unreservedly [1] and [2] . The Murdoch Sundays are exposed to big-ticket defamation writs, and we now know Ms Hanson lawyers had already written to the Sunday Telegraph.

Sunday's grovel could lessen the defamation damages awarded to Ms Hanson. However, I expect the newspapers to agree to settle, with the damages to be kept confidential.

Settling the case would also save Sunday Telegraph staff from cross-examination about the rigour with which they examined the photographs.

At this point last Sunday, your Grumpy Old Commentator came close to hitting the “publish” button, possibly after adding a few thoughts about privacy protection. But there was still something wrong with the Sunday Tele's story, which began:

JACK Johnson, the person at the centre of the controversial Pauline Hanson photographs affair, has emerged as a conman.
The Sunday Telegraph has learned Johnson not only offered purported photographs of Ms Hanson to paparazzi agent Jamie Fawcett eight days ago, but at the same time offered similar photographs of another prominent Australian woman in exchange for cash.
This new information makes it clear that Johnson is a conman.
The Sunday Telegraph learned the new information yesterday from Johnson himself.
Fawcett did not tell The Sunday Telegraph that Johnson claimed to have pictures of the other woman in lingerie with the Sultan of Brunei.
That claim is plainly ridiculous and exposes Johnson as a fraud.
Fawcett has refused to explain to The Sunday Telegraph why he failed to reveal this, or to defend himself from the allegation he was complicit in the hoax with Johnson.
Yesterday, he hung up the phone when asked why he had not disclosed this information.

Now let's see if I've got this right. By Saturday night, the ST knew Johnson was a conman. It also believed paparazzi photographer Jamie Fawcett (who acted as Johnson's agent in selling the pix to the ST) would have known he was a conman because Johnson had told him he also had pictures of the prime minister's wife in lingerie.

The ST phrased the allegation carefully in its story. But under the accompanying photo of Fawcett, it was unequivocal. The caption said:

Questionable motives: Photographer Jamie Fawcett knew that Jack Johnson also claimed to have compromising photos of another high-profile Australian woman.

The only source of that allegation was Johnson, of whom the ST article later said:

It is clear Johnson has a tenuous hold on reality, particularly when it comes to his past.
All along he has claimed cancer treatment and painkillers have played havoc with his memory.

The Sunday Telegraph appears to have apppropriated a power the police would envy – to judge a person guilty if that person fails to reply to an interrogation by its reporters, as it appears to have done with Fawcett and also with Hanson. And what's it matter if the accuser is a nutter?

Monday morning shed more light on the whole affair. We learned from The Australian's Media section [3] that Fawcett issued a statement on Sunday denying he was "complicit in any hoax with Mr Jack Johnson" and saying he had sought legal advice. He may have trouble financing any legal action, however, because he's an undischarged bankrupt after losing a defamation case.
The Media report also said it was understood the ST had stopped payment of a cheque to give Johnson $10,000 and Fawcett $5000 commission.

However, it wasn't until a bit later we learned the real story behind The Sunday Telegraph's grovel, and its remarkably aggressive treatment of Johnson and Fawcett.

Monday's Sydney Morning Herald [4] and [5] each carried long accounts which revealed The Sunday Telegraph had gone into Saturday night with a more measured report and apology.

But late Saturday, one of its writers confirmed that the rival Sun-Herald tabloid had worked up a story which would show Johnson to be a nutter, and would report his claim that Fawcett knew it was a con.
In what must have been frantic hour or two, the ST revamped its coverage and posted a new editorial to defuse the Sun-Herald's attack (which did not come, anyway – the Sun-Herald decided not to publish its story) .

The fake Hanson photos may fuel current debate about the the newspaper industry's current Right to Know campaign and about privacy laws. If the Hanson photos had been genuine, it would all have been all right, would it? Perhaps we'll return to that topic.

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