It’s far from over, with many still shouting. But as the conga line of those condemning Channel 7 for broadcasting the news that two AFL players had been referred for illicit drug use grows, we need to ask ourselves: are we shooting the messenger?
The noisy majority contends that medical records are sacrosanct, and that Seven behaved like slime not just by paying for such tainted goods, but broadcasting their contents.
Let’s look at the facts. On August 24, Seven reported that two senior AFL players had been referred for drugs treatment under the league's illicit drugs policy. The story came from medical records provided by a couple in their 30s who claimed to have found them in a gutter outside a rehabilitation centre, but were eventually arrested for stealing them. The network had paid $3,000 to obtain the documents. A player boycott is now in force.
But while everyone agrees that medical records should remain confidential, few have asked whether it is reasonable to assign the obligation to achieve this to a television network.
Medical institutions and health professionals are certainly obliged to respect patient confidentiality. Medical students learn early of their duty not just to keep mum about what happens in the consulting room, but to take all reasonable steps to ensure the contents of patient records are not disclosed.
Are journalists obligated to keep patient records private, too? The Media Entertainment and Arts Alliance’s Code of Ethics notes that journalists should “respect … personal privacy” but offers little guidance on how such respect should be demonstrated, or balanced against the public interest.
The Australian Communication and Media Authority’s Guidelines stipulates that news and current affair programs must not use material relating to a person’s personal or private affairs, or which invades an individual’s privacy, other than where there is an identifiable public interest reason for the material to be broadcast.
Journalists seem to agree that there was a case for running the story. Last Thursday, senior journalist at The Australian Cameron Stewart described it as a “cracking yarn” that “every media outlet in Melbourne would have reported … if it had come from the police, or the club, or from the players themselves.”
The question then, is whether Channel 7 got the balance - between their obligation to protect the privacy of the AFL players and their duty to act in the public interest - right.
Seven’s Melbourne news director Steve Carey contends that people at senior levels of sport who use illicit drugs fail to provide role models for kids. This view drove his decision to run the story, though he attempted to balance what he saw as the public’s right to know with the players’ right to privacy by omitting their names - though not the name of the club - from the broadcast.
Was Carey right to prioritise the interests of his viewers in a full picture of drug use in the AFL over the players’ and League’s interest in non-disclosure?
Certainly, if I’d been in Carey’s shoes that fateful night, I would have made a different call. I support the AFL’s three strikes policy, which appears to have been the indirect target of the story Seven put to air. I would have prioritised the players’ expectations of privacy over the story, which I see as more of a “of interest to the public” than “in the public interest” one.
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