Insights into litigation, sports law, media and legal culture

Grant Hackett media coverage: Ethics a distant second in the fight for eyeballs on screens

Much of the recent media coverage of Grant Hackett’s health issues was neither appropriate nor in the public interest. One can accept that there was news value, at least to a degree. Grant Hackett is a valued and important member of our Australian community. He has successfully represented our nation in swimming at the highest level. We have welcomed him into our home via our television sets and we care what happens to him.

However, in my view, this does not justify the following activities:

  • Sending a ‘breaking news’ email to newspaper subscribers that Grant Hackett has been arrested at the family home, with ‘more to come’, something I would expect to see in relation to a Donald Trump impeachment or bush fire crisis but not in relation to the personal issues of a former Australian Olympic swimmer;
  • Having Day 2 of the Grant Hackett ‘story’ on the wraparound of a newspaper (the rest devoted to advertising) with the ‘official’ Page 1 a monster photograph of a beleaguered Grant Hackett;
  • Being informed by print media that Grant Hackett has been “holed up” in a hotel or that he is otherwise in “hiding“, as if he is a criminal rather than a private citizen who would prefer to avoid other people right now, including intrusive media microphones and cameras;
  • Publishing spin-off stories about the “beautiful lawyer” who may have precipitated his (alleged) meltdown after her relationship with Grant Hackett broke up (cue photos of the then-happy couple together before they deleted each other’s social media presence, interviews with her friends, and reporting of her professional background and the name of her current employer);
  • Publishing the name and location of the health facility which Mr Hackett apparently planned to attend after he was released from police custody;
  • Reporting Mr Hackett’s arrest as if it was an end in itself, when he was not later charged with any offence;
  • Reporting that unspecified “witnesses” said Mr Hackett was arrested after “going off” and stabbing a chopping block repeatedly with a knife, an account that appears to have been later contradicted by family members and by subsequent reports of Mr Hackett’s “drowsy and relaxed” behaviour when he was taken into custody;
  • Ambushing Mr Hackett with cameras, microphones and questions immediately after he had been released from custody when reporters likely had reasonable grounds to believe by that time that (if the reports are correct) he might be struggling with mental health issues;
  • Relying heavily on accounts of distressed family members to ‘report’ on Mr  Hackett’s state of mind (“mental breakdown“, “drinking” and so on) in circumstances where such distress might well manifest itself in language that is exaggerated, incorrect and later regretted, and where Mr Hackett had not been given the opportunity to respond to these claims prior to publication or at all;
  • Quoting Mr Hackett’s brother, Craig, when he reportedly said – no doubt in a distressed state – that his brother was a “danger“, amongst other things, “to the community“, once again without any apparent attempt to ascertain whether this conclusion was reliable (let alone obtaining a right of reply from Mr Hackett) prior to publication;
  • Prominently publishing an Instagram photograph that Mr Hackett had posted after his release from custody in which he had a black eye, and associated commentary he wrote that self-evidently appears to have come from a person then in a distressed state, whose state of mind could be foreseeably exacerbated by the news article;
  • Publishing side-bar articles using a headline like, ‘Swimming Star’s Highs and Lows‘, to inform or remind readers of other reported incidents involving Mr Hackett prior to this one;
  • Relying on the distressed family’s request that all stops be pulled out to find Mr Hackett who had gone “missing” as apparent justification to (a) perpetuate the story, and (b) regurgitate the luridly reported events of the previous day;
  • Referring in self-congratulatory tones to an observation from Mr Hackett’s father that the “media blitz” caused Mr Hackett to be located;
  • Leading with the headline that Mr Hackett had been found “safe and sober“;
  • Using in some instances , effectively as a badge of responsible journalism (no matter the lurid nature of the content preceding it), a  recommendation to call Lifeline or other help lines if affected by the report;
  • Publishing, two days after Mr Hackett had been located, unsubstantiated gossip and innuendo about Mr Hackett’s alleged drinking habits in the immediate lead up to his arrest; and
  • Tracking him down to a hotel room on the Gold Coast after his Wednesday arrest and subsequent disappearance when it must have been apparent to any reasonable journalist that this was now hounding behaviour; and
  • Having tracked Mr Hackett down (a fact that was admitted without shame in the news article), putting a story to print with the ‘highlight’: “Hackett broke his silence via text message but would not speak directly with his family or media“.  Gee. I wonder why not.

Not all media outlets engaged in all the above activities but most engaged in at least some. Yes, I have done a comprehensive sweep and I am not naming names or publishing links to articles because I do not want to encourage people to look at them.

The Australian Press Council at the commencement of its Statement of General Principles encourages print journalists to consider their obligations with the following words: “Freedom of the press carries responsibilities to the public. Liberty does not mean licence, and due regard must be given to other important freedoms, rights and values which are in the public interest.”

The right to privacy is one of these other important rights.

The Australian Press Council says this to journalists about privacy in the context of its Principles:

  • First, avoid intruding on a person’s reasonable expectations of privacy, unless doing so is sufficiently in the public interest.
  • Secondly, avoid causing or contributing materially to substantial offence, distress or prejudice, or a substantial risk to health or safety, unless doing so is sufficiently in the public interest.

Mr Hackett’s state of mind was the central pillar to the media interest in him.  Therefore, we must accept that blanket coverage of his state of mind and ensuing conduct risked causing or contributing materially to his distress, health and safety.  Add to this reports of his own family putting out an APB on his whereabouts because they reportedly “thought the worst“.  It follows that we must examine closely the “public interest” to see whether such conduct is justifiable.

In legal circles, it is a foregone conclusion that “public interest” does not mean “public curiosity”.  In a (now superseded) defamation context, this is perhaps best explained by the 1998 decision of Chappell v TCN Channel Nine Pty Ltd (1988) 14 NSWLR 153.  Greg Chappell, the former Australian cricket captain, obtained an injunction preventing the Truth from publishing a story from a woman who claimed to have had an affair with him. Yes, I appreciate this seems quaint in the current age of #ShareEverySingleThingAboutYourself.

In granting the injunction, Justice Hunt ruled that the fact that Chappell was a public figure did not mean the story was inevitably in the public interest.  In his view, unless the public figure made his private activity a matter of public interest himself, that private activity could only be a matter of public interest if it had some bearing on his capacity to perform his public activities.  That is, “(i)f the plaintiff had in fact deliberately put himself forward to the public as subscribing to such high standards in his private behaviour, so that he could be taken as having appealed to the public for its judgment on his private behaviour, he cannot then be heard to say that the public does not have the right to pronounce judgment which he asked of it”.

The Australian Press Council offers a number of factors to consider when assessing whether publication that might otherwise be a serious breach of privacy is “sufficiently in the public interest”.  If these boxes are ticked, the breach will be considered justified.

Notably, the Australian Press Council is funded by newspapers and magazines, and so it is not surprising that it gives the media plenty of leeway when deciding whether or not to go to print.

However, the Australian Press Council boxes are not ticked in much of the Grant Hackett coverage:

  • Was the imposition on privacy  intended to “expose or prevent crime, dishonesty and serious misconduct or incompetence (especially by public figures)“? – NO
  • Did the coverage have anything  to do with “the administration of justice and government, personal privacy, and national security“? – NO
  • How about, “ensuring everyone has genuine freedom of expression and access to reliable information“? – Well, that’s a problem if much of the coverage appears inherently unreliable .

Further, even if a reporter can, hand on heart, say that ‘freedom of expression’ justifies why Mr Hackett should be “tracked down” to some hotel where he is “holed up” after being arrested but not charged by police after an incident at the family home where he appears to have been in some distress, the Australian Press Council says that the coverage must be proportionate to the gravity of the potential breach of the Principles.  Therefore, applied to the present case, if it is reasonably foreseeable that the media’s intrusion on Mr Hackett’s privacy could present a substantial risk to his personal health or safety, there had better be a seriously important reason why the public should ‘need to know’.

One important reason that could justify publication in the Grant Hackett case was when he went missing and his family reportedly held fears for his safety. Yet, as the above list of media activities indicates, much of that coverage appeared disinterested in Mr Hackett’s well being, and more interested in using the occasion as an opportunity to trawl through his recent reported personal history.

Appropriate articles during this period sought to explore the internal battle that many elite athletes and swimmers have after their sporting careers have ended, as they try to adjust to a more normal life. This issue is important and meaningful. It is entirely distinct from prurient curiosity.

The media’s ferocious coverage of Grant Hackett’s personal issues was likely motivated by a desire for eyeballs on computer screens.  The media is under tremendous pressure to stay relevant and deliver return to shareholders. Journalists are under constant pressure to retain their jobs and not be included in the next round of redundancies. Is it any wonder that many might ignore that tiny inner voice that suggests they are crossing an ethical line?  If that is happening (rather than wilful ignorance of or reckless disregard for such ethical rules), then I am sympathetic.  However, it is not the right time to put into action philosophical principles of deep pragmatism (see Is killing one to save five moral?).

With diligence and care (otherwise called, good, old-fashioned journalism), media outlets could have their cake and eat it too. That would involve making an effort to consider the proportionality of what is published by reference to the Press Council principles, verify facts, attribute sources, seek comment from Mr Hackett in an appropriate and respectful way prior to publication, and ensure that any subsequent reply he might make is published as well.

The real world involves reporting on newsworthy events. This may include Grant Hackett’s arrest. However, we all need to pay attention to ethical principles, including readers – like me – who might otherwise voraciously demand this sort of content. Our human dignity is at stake as well.

5 Responses to “Grant Hackett media coverage: Ethics a distant second in the fight for eyeballs on screens”

  1. Lorraine Little

    Dear Natalie

    The media did the same thing to James Hird and his family.

    I complained to the Australian Press Council about the camp out at his home and the photos taken of Tania Hird outside the rehabilitation facility where James was admitted.

    The APC were quite happy that journalists did not breach the code of practice; go figure!

    Health issues are health issues, not for social comment by lay people called sport writers, who are not qualified medical practitioners.

    There are no ethical standards in this country, as far as I am concerned, given the wide spread comments by lay people about a person with a mental health issue.

    Disclaimer: I am a critical care nurse of some 25 years experience. I have firsthand knowledge of caring for patients who have attempted suicide and those we could not save. I am an Essendon Football Club member.

    Thank you for your thoughtful comments about Grant Hackett. Please forward your articles to me about James Hird’s treatment at the hands of the media. I a™m sorry, I can’t find them and I could have inadvertently deleted.

    With kind regards

    Lorraine

    Lorraine Little

    [Editor’s note – edited for legal reasons.]

    Reply
    • Natalie Hickey

      Dear Lorraine, thank you for your comment which I have read in its entirety. I had to make some minor amendments for legal reasons (happy to discuss separately). I think your points are well made. So too is your (perhaps more subtle) point that I have not written separately about the privacy issues concerning media coverage of James Hird’s situation. There is room for some considered study, having regard to these recent examples, about whether this kind of media intrusion represents a trend, to what extent it is a product of the ‘Kardashian-era’, and how we are to confront media ethics in a world where even the President of the United States thinks it is appropriate to over-share on Twitter. I appreciate your comment. Kind regards, Natalie.

      Reply
  2. Brieanna Mercer (@BrieannaKM)

    This is spot on. Watching the Perth local news each night is getting worse and worse. I would certainly welcome a more stringent test on what is in the public interest both for athletes and reporting on proceedings while they are on foot generally.

    Reply
  3. Tony Fyffe

    Full support what Lorraine said. Concern for Hackett correct, but where was it for Hird hmm?

    Reply
  4. Pete

    What an article! It is just the tip of the iceberg in a social media driven world. In recent times I wonder how those behind the scenes manage with the constant media barrage. It makes you think what it does to their mental wellbeing. I think that in the end there is a loss of ethical boundaries as in my view the mindset is if I dont break the story then someone else will.beat me to it. I feel that there was no respect to the Hirds, Hackets and many before them!

    Reply

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