BCM113 Blog Journalism

Explainer: The Ethical Dilemma of Al Jazeera’s ‘How to Sell a Massacre’.

Al Jazeera’s documentary How to Sell a Massacre divided journalists, politicians and media professionals when it aired on the ABC in March; however, it also stirred up greater public engagement due to the documentary’s ethical grey-area. The debate arose due to Al Jazeera’s breach of privacy in order to prove Pauline Hanson’s One Nation Party intended to loosen gun laws in Australia.

How Did It Play Out?

The investigation unfurled over three years and started when Peter Charley, an Al Jazeera journalist, paid actor, Roger Muller, to assume the role of a gun lobbyist. He worked hard transforming himself into the founder of a convincing front, a group called Gun Rights Australia, and steadily built ties with the National Rifle Association in the USA. Al Jazeera trained Muller in journalistic procedures, gun training and went as far as to make a website for the fictional gun lobbying group.

Actor and undercover reporter Roger Muller and Pauline Hanson. Photo: ABC

Muller’s initial trip to the USA inducted him into the world of gun advocacy. He approached One Nation’s Chief of Staff, James Ashby, soon after and the party member jumped onto the opportunity to forge connections with the NRA through him. It wasn’t long before they organised a trip to the United States themselves, accompanied by Steve Dickson, the Queensland Leader and Senate Candidate for One Nation.

While on the trip, the members of One Nation discussed receiving illegal donations with the NRA through contributions to social media advertising. The online advertising campaigns would have followed the formatting of the NRA’s own social media posts, encouraging citizens to take up arms for self-defence. It’s important to note that Pauline Hanson strongly supported the recent bill banning foreign contributions when it was being passed.

The trouble with this undercover operation was that Muller collected the information under false pretence and recorded video and audio in secret; capturing private conversations with unwitting NRA members, USA gun advocates, and members of Pauline Hanson’s One Nation. Those involved with the investigation claim that public interest justified the breach of privacy and the investigation’s use of bugs and surveillance equipment and Muller’s deception.

The Divide amongst Media Professionals

On the Media Watch episode proceeding the documentary’s broadcast date, presenter Paul Barry outlined the complexity of the ethical quandary. Importantly, he pointed out that not all journalists supported the investigation or believed the means justified the ends.

“All of this and much more was captured on hidden camera and obtained by deception. The damning revelations have lead people to ask, ‘was it fair? Was it ethical? Does it amount to entrapment, and critically: does the end justify the means?”

Paul Barry, Media Watch, 1 April 2019.

Whether you’re a fan of Pauline Hanson’s One Nation or not, chances are you’re a fan of having privacy. This idea informed the arguments put forward by the journalists siding against the investigation; despite many holding no love for the nationalist, right-wing party.

Former Al Jazeera correspondent, Peter Greste, came out against his previous employer and reiterated the idea that breaching privacy and deception, which arguably led to entrapment, are not credible methods of information gathering.

In an interview clip of Greste shown by Paul Barry, the journalist states “journalists should never be involved in creating a story”. Barry echoed Greste’s point, stating “that’s a view held by some senior programmers inside the ABC, who are by no means fans of One Nation.”

In Pauline Hanson’s media conference following the documentary, she followed the line of entrapment as a central defence. She stated “if it wasn’t for Roger Muller and the Islamist network Al Jazeera, One Nation would never have had any association with the NRA, Coke Industries or the Congressional Sportsman’s Dinner”. Yet, the fact remains that they did go on their own accord and the documentary showed the two party members enthused at the prospects of ties to the NRA and the promise of nationalism waving though Australia on the wings of gun advocacy.

For every journalist goaded by Al Jazeera’s methods, there were ones defending the documentary. Peter Charley, the director of the investigation, pressed forward, saying in an interview with Channel Nine that “we wanted to go into the NRA to find out what they really say behind closed doors […] particularly in the wake of a mass shooting”. When asked about how One Nation got involved, he replied “I was interested in exploring wether the NRA was attempting to infiltrate other countries like they had done with Brazil”.

What Does the Law Say?

Right now, Australia’s privacy act doesn’t strictly prohibit this kind of journalism, in fact it has a journalism exemption if the public interest is deemed greater than an individual’s privacy; however, it does acknowledge that this isn’t always straight forward. Unless the breach of privacy involves certain personal information, such as medical records, individuals do not have a statutory right to pursue media entities legally. Often times, cases where a story enters onto this uncertain ethical ground, editorial choices will be considered in line with codes set out by regulatory bodies.

The Media, Entertainment and Arts Alliance state in their code of ethics that journalists should “respect private grief and personal privacy. Journalists have the right to resist compulsion to intrude”. Claus eight is also applicable to this investigation because it states material must be “obtained through “fair, responsible and honest means”, journalists should also state their name and employer.

What the Documentary Means for Journalism

The ethics around How to Sell a Massacre are not clear and neither are the laws. To avoid future issues with similar investigations and stories where privacy and public interest clash, it may be beneficial for law reform. If legislation shifted toward a more rigorous criteria for what constitutes a serious breach despite public interest it may mean individuals enjoy greater personal freedom.

The counter to this argument is that life would become harder for journalists in a world that already hinders their efforts in numerous other ways, such as whistleblowing laws. The digital world also complicates matters in two main ways: personal data and meta-data will become increasingly relevant to this conversation as well as the broadening scope of media practitioners investigating these stories. The ALRC has already acknowledged the concern around widening the exemption but more will need to be done in regards to digital data.

Cover photo by DXL on Unsplash

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