Media Law Explainer Assignment- Secret Recording Ethical and Legal Analysis

More people than ever are using their smartphones to secretly record key meetings, such as management reviews and termination meeting, says Bussiness Insider

Secret Surveillance- What’s the Deal

Dictionary.com defines the term ‘Surveillance’ as “continuous observation of a place, person, group, or ongoing activity in order to gather information”. This description makes it sound like as if surveillance is a tool used by the organizations such as law enforcement to further understand the crimes they attempt to halt, yet it is often used by reporters and even civilians in order to garner information, to inform a story or fulfil an agenda. Recording conversations, for example, is a commonly used technique by reporters in order to quote interviewees, the problem arises, both ethically and legally, when only one-party consents to the recording or, even worse if only one party knows that the recording is recurring. This is what happened in Victoria during 2014.

The Baillieu Tape- An Embarrassing Example

Ted Baillieu, former Victoria Premier, and stout Liberal found himself in hot water upon becoming the centre of a controversy, one that reignited the debate surrounding the ethical and legal nature of secret recordings. It seemed that Baillieu, under the impression he was off the record, went on a rant, of which “explosive material” (Caldwell, 2014) was an apt description. He aggressively criticised his fellow Liberal members, unaware that all the while the person listening, Political Editor of the Sunday Age, Farrah Tomazin, was secretly recording the entire event. After the impromptu interview Farrah, in what can only be considered an unfortunate blunder, lost the dictaphone used to record the conversation, at an opposition council meeting no less. The recording was leaked to the Liberal via email, and despite a firm rebuttal and claim that the dictaphone had been “completely destroyed” (Andrews, 2014) the Labour party was the prime suspect.

One Party Consent- Ethical and Legal Barriers

The key issue here is the secret nature of the recording, the fact that Baillieu was unaware he was being recorded arguably breaches his right to privacy, hence the ethical hurdle. Legally, the situation is perfectly fine, purely due to the geographical location of where it occurred. To understand this you first need an understanding of what constitutes a recording. SmartSafes lists it as an: audio, visual or audiovisual record in digital form. this term ‘record’ appears again in Victoria’s Servalliance Devices Act of 1999, in which it dictates that “overhear, record, monitor or listen to a private conversation to which the person is not a party” (Australian Government, 1999). Clearly, a reporter is able to record someone unknowingly then, as long as they are actually a part of the conversation in which the recording happens. Victoria is one of only three states in Australia that allows secret recording, the other being Queensland and the Northern Territories. Ethically most journalistic codes of conduct condemn this practice, for example, the MEAA’s, which states “Use fair, responsible and honest means to obtain material. Identify yourself and your employer before obtaining any interview for publication or broadcast. Never exploit a person’s vulnerability or ignorance of media practice”.

Conclusion- To Do or Not To Do

Overall the situation in which a secret recording is made dictates its ethical nature but is normally frowned upon in regular journalistic circles, of course, outliers and extreme circumstance may change the ethical nature. The Baillieu Tape is a key example of the legal allowance of secret recordings and also its questionable ethical nature.

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