By Tracy Sorensen
SYDNEY — A press photographer employed by Rupert Murdoch's Cumberland Press has been forced to leave his job at the Manly Daily after a documentary film in which he was the central character was aired on ABC television on March 8. His employers told him readers had been offended by his "bad language".
Part of the ABC's "True Stories" series, A Thousand Miles from Care revolved around the battle for advertising dollars between the 85-year old Manly Daily, taken over in 1987 by Murdoch's News Corp, and a slick-looking new rival, the Weekender. Coincidentally, the Gulf War began the same day as the newspaper war.
The film focusses increasingly on photographer Joe Murphy, a man obsessed by the big war and very cynical about the little one. With his ears permanently hooked up to a walkman radio, he does his rounds: a bus driver's new uniform; a Manly personality sitting on the beach.
"I'm waiting for Dog of the Week", he says flatly, at one point. "Every week, we photograph a dog sentenced to death row, and see if any humane people out there want to give it a home." Film maker Gil Scrine follows Murphy home, where he gets out the photographs he took in the war zones in Afghanistan and El Salvador.
Murphy, obviously an excellent photographer, makes no effort to pretend he loves his job. When another photographer explains how to get subjects to relax, Murphy explodes. "I've gone beyond the time when I can put up with trivial things", he says. He'd rather talk about the bombing of Baghdad, and the amount of money the government is pouring into the Australian war effort.
After the film was aired, Cumberland Press told Murphy, who had worked for the Daily for 10 years, he no longer had a job in Manly. He was offered two choices: a job at Parramatta for a cooling-off period, or take his long service leave with no guarantee of his old job back after that. The Manly Daily published an apology to its readers for Murphy's behaviour.
Murphy took his case to the Australian Journalists Association, and it was privately arbitrated on March 16. The case is now considered resolved: Murphy is working in Parramatta and expected to be grateful he is working at all. A condition of his continued employment is that he not speak to the media about his case.
Gil Scrine told Green Left that the persecution of Murphy confirmed a theme running through A Thousand Miles from Care: the idea that an employee is owned by his or her employers, body and soul, 24 hours a day. Murphy had simply come across as inappropriately free, and for this he was being persecuted.
As for the "bad language", the expletives Murphy used were used by most Australians. The ABC had run an explicit warning before the program. "This effort by Cumberland to 'disappear' Joe Murphy from Manly should, I believe, be opposed by all who care about principals of free speech, independent journalism and freedom of the press", said Scrine.