ON SUNDAY 18 JANUARY 2004, David Hookes, the Victorian cricket coach, former Australian batsman and popular media commentator was viciously assaulted outside a St Kilda pub. Eyewitness accounts of this event suggested that after a series of verbal confrontations between Hookes and a hotel security officer at the pub, the officer had followed Hookes up a neighbouring street. As he neared his parked car, a punch thrown by the security guard knocked Hookes to the ground. Tragically, Hookes fell to the road on his head, causing massive head injuries. It is believed he suffered a major heart attack while unconscious. The forty-eight-year-old Hookes died in hospital the next day after life support systems were shut off.
The resultant level of media coverage of this event was overwhelming over the next week. In Melbourne, front-page banner leads in both the tabloid and broadsheet daily newspapers were accompanied by leading bulletins on both radio and television broadcasts. At the same time the news drew reactions from all around the country, including those from the Prime Minister John Howard and the State Premier of his adopted state, Victoria, as well as from his native South Australia. In addition to this there were well-publicized reactions of shock from sporting figures outside of cricket (US tennis star Andre Agassi, and prominent South African golfer Ernie Els) as well as media celebrities. Indeed, this event was widely reported in all other cricket-playing nations around the world.
This paper wishes to raise a number of important questions that arise from the predominately Melbourne media coverage of this sad event. Attention needs to be focused not only on the news priority afforded to the story, but more pointedly on some of the ethical issues relating to journalism as well as the day-to-day working conventions and practices of mainstream media.
Negative News--Negative Stories: The Cult of Personality
While it is now a very old adage, it is still primarily true that 'bad' news is good news for media organizations. Circulation figures and ratings tend to soar when there are disasters of any description to report. Day-to-day newscasts are often characterized by one bad news story after another. There is an old and well-understood media convention that the following event, for example, quite obviously constitutes legitimate news: 'Passenger Airline Scare After Emergency Landing.' Yet it is impossible to even conceive the news worthiness of a story where: 'Passenger Airline Takes Off Without Incident.'
The story about the death of David Hookes had a great deal of media currency beyond the initial shock value. It was a story about the untimely death of a celebrity, a minor one to be sure, but one who had a great deal of purchase in a sports-loving community. The central figure, after all, was the current state cricket coach and former Australian test cricketer who was now also a prominent opinionated radio commentator and controversial identity.
For the first two days, the sheer force of this story took a major international bad news story off the front pages. Specifically, this was the ongoing revelation that US, UK and Australian Intelligence organizations had allegedly furnished their respective governments with questionable assessments of the situation in Iraq prior to the March 2003 invasion of that country. The stories of these allegations were now displaced in their positioning and prominence within TV and radio news bulletins, as well as in the major daily publications. This displacement was undoubtedly a relief to some, who often complain of the current bleakness on the international stage following the September 11 terrorist attacks against the US. Yet in an important sense, one bleak international story was now simply replaced by another local one.
In addition to and compounding this was that there was a great deal of complexity involved in coming to terms with the detailed revelations about intelligence agencies and their operations in analysing the circumstances in Iraq. …