Pleas by James Hird’s family to respect its privacy present challenges to media covering the latest chapter of a life that has become a very public Greek tragedy.
It might seem right that the media back off – ask no questions, take no photos – and await news from Hird’s family or spokespeople. If the reports of a suspected drug overdose are correct – suggesting a deliberate act – then the last thing the former Essendon player and coach or his family should have to endure is the added stress of scrutiny and interference.
More broadly, finding a balance between providing information and minimising harm is often a delicate pickle for journalists.
Sports journalism and media ethics
To provide valuable information to the public, media must act independently, unconstrained by vested interests, no matter how powerful or loud.
As a champion player and as coach, Hird was a high-profile public figure – a superstar in a billion-dollar industry – and still is a public figure due partly to his role in the seemingly unrelenting supplements controversy. There is no doubt that the public, many of whom have followed Hird’s career, wants to know what happened in the lead-up to his hospitalisation and treatment, and how he is faring now.
Some observers argue that when footballers become public figures they enter a Faustian pact in which they also become sports celebrities, and with that celebrity status, anything they do is public or at least newsworthy.
Competition among sports journalists is fierce, and there is pressure to break fresh news and be first with the story. The AFL accredits about 850 print, radio, television and digital reporters to cover football. A further 1,100 people work as broadcast crew, photographers, player statistics collectors and so on. That’s about 2,000 media covering between 720 and 792 registered players, depending on the year.
Terry Wallace played 254 AFL games, mainly for Hawthorn and also for Richmond and Footscray, which is now the Western Bulldogs. He coached the Western Bulldogs and, less successfully, Richmond, for 247 games.
More recently, as a sports commentator with a regular radio program, Wallace has been on both sides of the media/privacy issue. He believes that:
Somewhere along the line, there have to be boundaries about what is private and what is not private.
Journalists’ actions shocked Wallace on occasions when he coached Richmond between 2005 and 2009. One night in June 2008, Richmond defender Graham Polak was hit by a tram, bruising his brain so badly that doctors put him in an induced coma.
After months of treatment and rehabilitation, he was allowed home but complained of short-term memory loss and balance issues. Wallace recalls that someone from the media appeared at Polak’s house, claiming to have the club’s permission to interview him. He says:
This was something to me that stepped across the line of what was fair and reasonable.
What is the ‘public interest’?
Many stories about footballers’ off-field antics fall into the category of being of public interest, but it’s difficult to see how they are in the public interest. So what is there to guide journalists?
The Media Alliance, the Australian Communications and Media Authority and the Australian Press Council have codes and guidelines that essentially say the right to privacy should be respected but may be transgressed when there is a clear public interest.
The difficulty is that journalists interpret what is in the “public interest” differently depending on the circumstances, the exclusivity of the story, the numbers impacted, and so on. Figuring out the right thing to do is not an exact science.
A key function of the media is to expose those who transgress laws, rules and common standards. That’s what happened to Hird when his actions as coach during Essendon’s supplements program attracted tough media scrutiny and questioning.
It was in the public interest for Hird’s role to be probed and exposed because he was operating under the codes and rules governing doping. In August 2013, Hird was suspended from his position as Essendon coach for 12 months under these rules.
But that’s different to Hird’s current situation. Reporting details of his suspected overdose or filming wife Tania and his children without their consent intrudes on their right to privacy, with no valid journalistic justification. It has no sense of being in the public interest as there is no need nor right for the public to know.
Only, perhaps, a desire to know.
This piece is based on a longer book chapter from Media Innovation and Disruption (2016).
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Authors: Bill Birnbauer, Senior Lecturer, School of Media, Film and Journalism, Monash University