West Australian editor
Paul Armstrong may need to pack a toothbrush and spare undies when he
fronts the WA Supreme Court on 22 July to plead guilty to contempt of
court. In a deal brokered with the WA Solicitor-General, Armstrong will
plead guilty to one of two charges, in exchange for the second being
dropped.

It follows his controversial decision last year to
“name and shame” an underaged juvenile offender dubbed “Peter the
Rabbit,” whose story and photo dominated page one. The report outraged
child welfare officers who pointed to the nine-year-old boy’s troubled
home life, which included bashings and caring for babies in nappies
overnight in a nearby park without adult supervision.

A contempt of court charge brought by WA Labor Attorney-General Jim McGinty for identifying a juvenile offender on the West’s
website was dropped in exchange for a guilty plea for identifying the
boy in print. But Armstrong’s admission of contempt comes at a critical
time.

There are many other instances of Armstrong getting into
hot water. Last month, the Australian Press Council condemned his
“Courts of injustice” headline over a full-page attack on judicial
sentencing. The Council, of which the West is a paid-up member,
said the main headline and two sub-heads: “One judge says a man’s life
is worth less than five years… despite another saying an injury is
worth six,” were “inappropriate to court reporting.” It upheld a
complaint that the headlines were “inflammatory and emotive”, “not
supported by the stories themselves” and “an expression of opinion over
factual reporting.” The West is appealing the finding.

The
paper lost a similar appeal against Press Council condemnation of
another Armstrong headline “The true cost of bludgers” that targeted an
unemployed Aboriginal family by linking three unrelated stories. The
complainant, former WA Chief Justice Henry Wallwork, described the page
three report as “cowardly in the extreme as it attacks a relatively
defenceless family, including innocent children.”

Armstrong
buried the adverse finding in the back pages, behind a letter that
slammed the Press Council and former Chief Justice for being “out of
touch with reality.” The “Is this woman in another world?” headline
attack on WA Chief Judge Toni Kennedy in January resulted in a
grovelling personal apology from Armstrong to the WA Solicitor General
to escape a charge of “scandalising the court.”

The 34-year-old
editor’s public ridicule of the state’s most senior judges has set the
scene for an epic courtroom showdown on 22 July. WA Chief Justice David
Malcolm, under recent media fire over his medical fitness for judicial
office, is said to be seriously concerned that Armstrong is publicly
undermining the authority of the courts.

Armstrong, whose $260,000-a-year contract is due for renewal next month, is struggling to arrest sliding West
circulation amid criticism that he panders to popular prejudice at the
expense of factual reporting. Backers claim he is “still on a steep
learning curve” after two years as editor of WA’s leading daily
newspaper.

The former West finance reporter’s fixation
with UK tabloid journalism after a four-year London sojourn results in
frequent story rewrites to match eye-grabbing headlines, sometimes with
disastrous results. Last year’s much-vaunted and costly London-look
revamp appears to have done little but alienate conservative West readers unused to celebrity gossip and fashion pics dressed up as “news” on forward pages.

An
exodus of experienced reporters amid claims of workplace bullying and
company disquiet over abusive newsroom outbursts have fuelled
speculation that the hot-headed tyro is on a final warning.

How a hostile judiciary handles his 22 July guilty plea may seal his fate.

Peter Fray

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