Journalists have the right to resist compulsion to intrude

Do no more damage.  Respect privacy.  Never exploit a person’s vulnerability.  This is what I was taught at university while studying journalism.  It’s called ethics.  There are 12 ethical points journalists must uphold if they are to maintain credibility and keep their jobs.  Twelve simple rules about facts, honesty, fairness, commercialism, conflict, racism and plagiarism.


Journalists can be hungry beasts.  News never sleeps.  We want information, right now.  If we don’t get it, look out.  Unfortunately, gaining information isn’t always easy.  It isn’t always handed to us.  Last year, while researching for a book, I decided to interview a former footballer, a premiership star and club life member.  Just like that, I had to talk to him.


I searched the internet for his contact details.  The only information available was his playing statistics, height, weight and the regional club he was recruited from.  Nothing pointed me to a contact number.  After half an hour, I gave up.  Later that night, I watched a few clips of him on YouTube.


A couple of days later, I contacted the VFL club he played for.  Their past players association gave me a phone number, a landline that was disconnected.  I called them back, seeking a mobile number.  Instead, I was given the phone number of a man who was once associated with the club.  He had no answers either.  He hadn’t seen the player in years.


I went back to the white pages and searched all manner of country towns for the player.  People I called knew who he was but he was no relation.  Without any expectations, I went back to my original search and used the information that was right there at first glance.


I emailed the current president of the player’s regional club, the first club he played at as a teenager before being noticed by VFL recruiters.  The following day the president called me.  I’ll call him Bill.  After explaining the purpose of my email, Bill promised to help without any guarantees.


Two days later, Bill called me back.  He had tracked down the player’s brother, who appreciated the interest but said there would be no interview.


‘(The player) is in psychiatric care because of a breakdown after his marriage ended,’ Bill said.


I was silent for a moment, overcome by sadness.  ‘I had no idea,’ I said.  ‘I remember him as unbeatable, invincible.  I didn’t think he could be affected by the same things that affect everyone else.’


‘He’s going to be fine,’ Bill said.


‘Thanks for letting me know,’ I said.  ‘I’m sorry.  Journalists always want things.  We don’t always think about the welfare of people we want information from, how they’re feeling and what they’re doing.’


‘You going to write anything?’ Bill asked.


‘No,’ I said.  ‘Tell his brother I’m not writing a story.’

Bill thanked me and hung up.


Journalists are no different to any member of society.  The stories we cover often disturb us greatly, murder, rape, theft, illness, natural disasters and politics.  We must be impervious to pain as we report.  If a story hurts us, we have access to counsellors.  We talk to friends and family about our issues with the stories we cover.


But journalists often overlook our own experiences when we seek information.  I wanted to talk to the player about his career.  I had not considered his life since football.  All I knew was my memories and what I saw on YouTube.


People told me there was a story in the player’s situation.  We’ve all read those types of stories, Player X is suffering from this disease/illness.  He/his family want to raise awareness.


I refused, because I was overcome by my own sadness.  Having recently separated, I understood the player’s pain.  I also understand grief affects people in different ways.  I was getting on with life.  He was in care.  There was no way I could intrude on his grief.


A story about his situation could not possibly help.  An official from his former VFL club called me and said the club was doing everything it could to help.


I found myself watching those black and white highlights for weeks.  It depressed me, because no matter how good he was on the field, watching was damaging my psyche.  I was reliving my own relationship grief vicariously through his on-field deeds, that’s how good he was and we’re going through the same thing.


I had to stop watching him, for my own peace of mind.  A few months later, during an interview, I found out another premiership star from the seventies is in care, suffering from early onset dementia.


It is awfully sad, another premiership hero succumbing to viciousness of life, as we all will.  I scoffed at the suggestion there was a story in it.  Later that night, I watched him on YouTube.  It was hard to watch another premiership hero knowing he was now in care.  It was information I didn’t not want to be burdened by.


As I watched, I thought about the ethics I learned at university.  Do no more damage.  Respect privacy.  Never exploit a person’s vulnerability.  Never kick a man when he’s down, unless you get permission, and even then you don’t do it.


I will never divulge the names of the players mentioned in this story.  Do no more damage.


Journalists have nothing without credibility.  Occasionally, in our manic desire for information, we overlook all the pain and suffering our talent and their families are feeling.  We can disregard what they’re going through.  We can be like maggots squirming on a corpse, determined to feed.  That is why journalists are placed next to prostitutes and used car salesmen, low down on the list of Australia’s top 50 most trusted professions.


It is surprising, because most of us know when not to push the keys, when the story doesn’t need to be written.


I want those former premiership players to have peace and space.


Peace and space


When the media reported that James Hird had been hospitalised for an alleged drug overdose, I was absolutely shocked.  Premiership hero, captain and Brownlow Medallist, gone to hospital, just like that.  A man once infallible, invincible and a legend now fallen and seemingly at the end.


Hird was publicly punished and vilified for his role in Essendon’s doping scandal.  I never wrote one story about Hird, Essendon and the doping saga.  But I read many stories about the club’s illegal injection program.  I read Chip Le Grand’s excellent book, The Straight Dope.  I agreed with Hird’s suspension, the players suspension and Dank’s banning from football.  I admit I wanted the club punished.


Guilt brings its own sins.  Journalists highlighted those sins.  But no journalist wanted Hird in hospital.  I didn’t want Hird to feel he had just one way out.  I wanted him to take his whack and eventually be welcomed back to the AFL industry.


I never thought about how Hird was handling the anger, the shame, his shunning from an industry he once lit up.  No journalist or media organisation cared how he felt in the aftermath of that tumultuous time.  Journalists wanted blood when the story kept feeding the news.  Now, they’ve got it.


Another premiership hero in care.  In Hird’s case, publicity was inevitable.  He is far too famous for his hospitalisation to be covered up.  Journalists had to cover it.  I can understand why a pack of journalists gathered outside Hird’s house, seeking an interview or a statement.  But it aggravated me.  They did not need to be there.  A statement was always going to be forthcoming.


I thought Patrick Smith’s story in The Australian, while correct, was badly timed.  His follow up to the public criticism seemed a little smug.  Smith built his stories on the facts, which we all know.  He could’ve waited.  He might’ve not written the stories.


I was left with thoughts of those ethics classes.  Do no more damage.  Respect privacy.  Never exploit a person’s vulnerability.  Journalists have the right to resist compulsion to intrude.


It’s time for the feeding to stop.  Peace and space for those premiership heroes.  Peace and space for Hird and his family.


And hopefully a welcome back to the AFL industry, whenever he’s ready and if he wants it.

About Matt Watson

My name is Matt Watson, avid AFL, cricket and boxing fan. Since 2005 I’ve been employed as a journalist, but I’ve been writing about sport for more than a decade. In that time I’ve interviewed legends of sport and the unsung heroes who so often don’t command the headlines. The Ramble, as you will find among the pages of this website, is an exhaustive, unbiased, non-commercial analysis of sport and life. I believe there is always more to the story. If you love sport like I do, you will love the Ramble…


  1. Yvette Wroby says

    Dear Matt. Lovely thoughtful piece. Peace and space. And for those on the almanac who aren’t professional journalist but loving writers, it’s a timely reminder that what we write on any medium needs consideration and thought. And to do no harm.

    Thank you for sharing this piece. Much appreciated.

  2. G’day Matt,

    You present us so great standards in writing. I am so impressed with your braveness and showing us what journalism should be.

    I feel empathy to you, Hird and former footballers. Last year’s Garry Lyon’s issues were too exaggerated and I want Mark Robinson to feel guilty to cover the story.

    I bet you will respect Rohan Connolly who admits reporting Essendon saga exaggerated. I agree with him.

    Your piece of writing reminds me well as a guy who wants to be a journalist (professional writer) in the near future.

    Thank you for sharing the story and I wish you all the best.


  3. Great stuff Matt. Unfortunately for good journalism and good journalists news is now just a product, like breakfast cereal. We don’t read or watch the news now, we “consume” it. We get noise, not reporting with thought.

    Sadly someone in my immediate family has been the victim (I use that word on purpose) of the mad media pack. Some years ago one of his children was caught up in a calamitous event. Reporters camped outside his house for a week. He told them politely and repeatedly he had no desire to talk to them. So they took it upon themselves to corner his kids as they walked home from school. It was despicable behaviour. They called it doing their job. I don’t think anything has changed.

  4. Powerful piece, Matt. Best wishes with your own journey.
    Knowing – or thinking I know – a juicy titbit about a public person has sometimes been a temptation for me. I rationalise it by putting the information in the context of a morality tale. Something that highlights a larger truth – that people can learn from.
    But then I ask myself if the story is more about validating myself and my ego need to be noticed. I have always pulled back from sharing those titbits, because I think the person’s right to privacy far outweighs any minimal public good. But I can see how a commercial journalist with career pressures would be tempted.
    I view the Hird saga in the context of the Icarus legend – the golden child overreaching and flying too close to the sun. Even the most gifted among us have lessons to learn. And the right to learn them in private, and be welcomed not hounded when the journey is over.

  5. Cathryn McDonald says

    Thankyou for this… it really made me think about my own writing while I’m editing my pieces for the 2016 Almanac. Most of us on this site at least are amateurs, so we’ll never be hounding players or dealing with personal bits of information. But some of what you said still does apply, in particular that comment about never kicking someone while they’re down. I went straight back to my articles and made sure I wasn’t doing that.

    I love reading the Almanac but the one thing I do not like is seeing writers follow the trend of the mainstream media, and in some cases going further, in kicking people and groups while they’re down. Not mentioning any examples to not get into debates about the worth of the people or groups involved, but I’m really going to try to bear this in mind this year both when reading and writing.

  6. Well presented, Matt.
    There are subjective judgements to be made here, but “do no harm” is a solid place to start.
    All the best with your own trip.
    Thanks for this.

  7. Great to have some words from you again, IM. Admirable stuff. I’d like to believe that a great many journalists go on to have successful careers without having to compromise their ethics, but all the evidence suggest otherwise. And as for he vultures out the front of Hird’s house, jesus, it’s hard not to judge them. Let’s hope they’ll be a feel good story you’ll be able to report down the track on the unnamed players in your piece.

  8. Typos in the last one

    Great to have some words from you again, IM. Admirable stuff. I’d like to believe that a great many journalists go on to have successful careers without having to compromise their ethics, but the evidence suggests otherwise. And as for the vultures out the front of Hird’s house, jesus, it’s hard not to judge them. Let’s hope there’ll be a feel good story you’ll be able to report down the track on the unnamed players in your piece.

  9. If only, Matt. If only.

    I must admit I was shocked by Patrick Smith’s article in the Australian

  10. Thanks everyone for your kind words.
    My journey is progressing well.
    And amazingly, I quit the ABC to take up PR work.
    I quit not because of ethical reasons, but for parenting reasons.
    It’s hard sharing custody with shift work.
    Being the best dad possible is my priority.

  11. I’m so disgusted and shocked SEN having interviewed their own co-host Garry Lyon on his alleged issues of having an affair. And it was exclusive.

    I just don’t understand why the radio station has done such a job. If I were Garry, I would be pissed off and seek somewhere for a job.

    The new breakfast show is good and I like it as Bob Murphy appears every Wednesday. But I can’t stand the interview.

    I might switch off the radio after moving to England hopefully by August.


  12. Mike, Do no harm? Journalists (I’m not one) ought be committed to truth and the general good that flows from truth. To this end shitheads need a kicking. I think of Hunter Thompson vs Nixon, Mencken vs all charlatans, Hitchens vs religion and Kissinger, Matt Taibbi vs Goldman Sachs and Trump. They set out to inflict harm, and we are all better off for it.
    As to Hird and the accusation that his accusers brought him to this… well, I turn that accusation right back at the people who made it. It is his believers who created him. And straight after his hospitalisation they began again, blaming everyone else, cocooning him from introspection and honesty and setting him up, once again, on the wonky pedestal of infallibility, from which catastrophe lies in every direction.

  13. Punxsu.... Pete says

    ajc, white-hot incisiveness. I was still digesting all the recent developments and unsure about my position … I’m a little closer to one now.

  14. AJC – good point. And the media went mad for it.
    I think everyone should’ve kept quiet and given Hird clear air…

  15. Mike, yeah I guess the rider that come with my point is that you’ve got to punch up, not down. And with Hird on his back in hospital, to criticise him is punching down.

  16. I suppose a lot of grey areas come up. For example, Hird took a million dollars to ‘agree to be suspended’, then took another million dollars to ‘ agree to be sacked’. I haven’t heard him apologise to his players or his club, instead he used the club’s vulnerability and supporters goodwill for his own personal gain.
    Hird received two million dollars to escape a drug issue that was his own creation…and then feels down because he is in exile and blamed.
    Actions have consequences, so I see no issue in criticising him.

  17. I KNOW how you feel Matt. About not intruding on an ex-players’ privacy to grab an interview or a feature article piece.
    There’s a famous 400-game player in central Victoria who is now an extremely successful businessman.
    I’d wanted to interview him for a Saturday morning show I co-hosted with a gent named Geoff Morris (a blind man almost a household name in central Vic.) but the ex-player demurred.
    When the ex-player declined both my own and Geoff’s entreaties we never rang him again.
    By contrast, last September I interviewed a 100-year old former triple Eaglehawk F.C. premiership player who is as bright as a button. Name of Harold ‘Wicky’ Toma.
    With the tape running Wicky recalled his feats in the 1937 Bendigo F.L. grand final as if it had been last year, — not 80 years back.
    This same gentleman took on umpiring in the Forties when a bad back forced his retirement from footy.
    I sat in the car for 8 to 10 minutes after finishing talking to Wicky. I don’t know many hundreds and hundreds of people I’ve interviiewed down the years …… but a 100-y-o. No sirree!

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