This article was first published online in The New Daily on June 14th, 2023 as “Time to right wrongs with much-needed media reform”.
Since I was elected, I have consistently called for media reform.
This is due to my concerns that the absence of media diversity and the resulting concentration of power are leading to a lack of accountability and eroding public trust in the fourth estate.
The publication of leaked text messages in relation to the high-profile sexual assault allegations made by former parliamentary staffer Brittany Higgins has cemented my concerns.
The media has great power to be a force for good when it reports with good faith and in the public interest.
It also has the power to destroy people, and trust in institutions, when it fails to balance that with a duty of care.
I strongly believe that in 2023 the media has either forgotten, or is choosing to ignore, these ethical boundaries.
This creates a persuasive case for a review of current media self-regulation, including the voluntary journalist’s code of ethics, and the toothless ‘regulators’, the media’s self-funded Press Council and the under-resourced ACMA.
Opportunity for action
The forthcoming changes to the Privacy Act also present an opportunity.
Privacy standards of media organisations need to be strengthened.
Both the Privacy Act Review and the Australian Law Reform Commission have recommended strengthening the privacy standards expected of media organisations.
For if the media won’t effectively self-regulate, alternative action should be taken.
My concerns about this case lie not only with Ms Higgins’ wellbeing at the centre of a political point-scoring exercise, but also the credibility of the legal processes available to women reporting allegations of sexual assault.
Where exactly is the red line? Is a young woman, indeed is the trust of all women in the justice system when alleging sexual offences, justified collateral damage?
The initial trial was aborted last year due to jury misconduct and prosecutors subsequently dropped the charges against Bruce Lehrmann amid concerns about the impact a second trial could have on Ms Higgins’ mental health.
As a former Commonwealth employee, Brittany Higgins made a personal injury claim, it was assessed, and a payment was made.
Ms Higgins had a right to confidentiality, which she chose to exercise, as have others who have made claims to Comcare.
She also had a right to privacy regarding the text messages requested by the police during the investigation. They were never tendered as evidence in court as they weren’t relevant to the central allegation.
Now that her private texts have been leaked, there are questions about who knew what and when just before Ms Higgins went public in 2021, this time involving Senator Katy Gallagher.
This may or may not be relevant to the unsavoury politicisation of this matter and I strongly denounce any politicisation of Ms Higgins’ trauma – from either side of politics.
But even if it is, it’s a sideshow, a deliberately orchestrated Trumpian alternative dumpster fire to divert attention from the real issue.
The more pertinent, and still unanswered, questions relate to who in former prime minister Scott Morrison’s office knew what and when, and more importantly what they did or did not do when Ms Higgins first made her allegation a full two years earlier, in March 2019 just before the May federal election.
The Gaetjens inquiry into that was suspended, creating lingering opacity.
Yet the former prime minister learnt enough that he chose to apologise to Ms Higgins in early 2022.
There is now a critical further question – who leaked the contents of Ms Higgins phone, why (and why now with related defamation action on foot) and how does that reflect on both our justice and political systems?
We are dealing with the lives of real people here, not just objects to be used to further the ideological agendas of political parties and media organisations.
Sexual assault is an under-reported and under-prosecuted crime.
ABS data estimates 87 per cent of rapes and sexual assaults go unreported – or, as author and consent educator Jane Gilmore has said, you could fill the MCG twice over in a year with the number of people who do not report being raped or sexually assaulted to the police.
The leaked text messages should never have been published, certainly not verbatim, and I’m disappointed that my former profession could be so easily manipulated by those doing the leaking without questioning the motive and the potential consequences.
Safe, respectful, and accurate media reporting can reduce society’s acceptance of violence against women.
Ms Higgins has left an important legacy. She was the catalyst for the Independent Review into Commonwealth Parliamentary Workplaces led by former Sex Discrimination Commissioner, Kate Jenkins.
The reforms that have followed have created a stronger and safer culture in Australia’s Parliament. Or so we thought.
Clearly, we still have much work left to do to keep women and girls safe, and to enable them to come forward and to expect a good faith process.
To those women who have a story to tell and will now keep your mouths shut, I see you.
Those in our media across the political spectrum would do well to open their eyes.
Zoe Daniel is the independent federal Member for Goldstein