Press in focus

PUBLISHED : Monday, 16 August, 1999, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 16 August, 1999, 12:00am
 

Nowhere is the subject of journalistic ethics more vigorously debated than in the profession itself.


Those working for more serious papers resent the reputation for sensationalism and prying that is the stock-in-trade of the more popular papers because they feel it gives the entire profession a bad name. But the pitfalls involved in trying to impose legal restraints on the press can easily be seen in the remarks of the Privacy Commissioner, Stephen Lau Ka-men. Newspapers could not operate if they had to seek permission from every individual before their photograph was published.


The example quoted of the shop assistant sacked after she was shown idly scratching her hand in a story about the retailing slump is unfortunate, but hardly justification for banning every unsanctioned photograph. The sacking was more a reflection of the attitude of the woman's employers than on the newspaper that published the picture.


How would such a ruling affect photographs taken at a race meeting, for example, when scores of people will be in the frame? The idea of seeking permission from everyone would be ridiculous. It would also be ludicrous in cases where people were caught on film involved in anti-social acts.


But far more serious questions are at issue when press freedom is discussed. In a perfect world, newspapers would not use gory pictures of suicide victims, or intrude into private lives. But in a perfect world the public would not buy the newspapers that do so. And therein lies the snag. There is a wide gap between topics of public interest, and what the public is interested in.


The people who buy the newspapers set the standards. That way individual censorship can be practised and the press can remain free.


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