Last week I attended the hearing of a contempt case brought against
WA Newspapers (which publishes The West Australian), and
Paul Armstrong (the editor of The West) by the Attorney General, heard
in the Western Australian Court of Appeal.

Last July, The West
published a photograph, and the nickname, of a nine-year-old Aboriginal boy
who had been made a ward of the state. He had been on a bit of a crime
spree and had become, in the words of The West’s front page, a
“suburban terrorist.” This was hard-hitting journalism the way The West likes
it: putting the boot into Aborigines, the more defenceless the better. The
West
and Armstrong pleaded guilty to the charge of contempt. A smart move –
it’s illegal under the Children’s Court Act to identify wards of the state
in WA, and the paper’s reporting had clearly identified the boy, and there was very
little that could have been said in its defence.

Counsel for the
Attorney General, George Tannin SC, in making submissions as to sentence,
noted the huge influence of The West, as the only daily WA-based paper, and
emphasised the need for that influence to be used responsibly. Justice of
Appeal Christine Wheeler asked Mr Tannin about The West’s
and Armstrong’s claim that the publication had been made out of concern
for the boy. Tannin noted that such a claim stood at odds with the use
of the words “suburban terrorist” and the use of a photograph in which
the boy was posing in a menacing, aggressive, way. In short, the
publication demonised the boy and was completely gratuitous.

Counsel for The West and for Armstrong,
Wayne Martin QC, began his clients’ plea in mitigation with the lame
suggestion that publishing the photograph of the boy was the equivalent of
the famous (and Pulitzer Prize winning) photograph of the little Vietnamese
girl running from her village, naked, her body covered in burns from American
napalm.

The boldness of that proposition did not appear to win over the
Court. It was all downhill from there for poor Martin. He attempted to
explain that Armstrong, although admitting that he knew that identifying a
ward of the state was illegal, didn’t make the mental connection between
the publications in The West and the commission of a crime.

The
Court steadily lost patience with this laughable suggestion. Justice
Wheeler, beaming all the while, politely asked Martin whether it had
occurred to Armstrong that there might be a connection. Why did he dismiss
the possibility? Why did he not take legal advice? Martin’s only response
was that he had no instructions on that point (never a good sign if that’s
all a barrister can say), and eventually he agreed with Justice Wheeler that
the evidence of the editor really wasn’t of much assistance at all.

Finally, as Martin was explaining the educational programs run at The
West

to deal with contempt of court, Justice Miller asked what good an
education program would be for a matter of clear commonsense. Martin
mumbled: “Who knows?” in response. And he sat down shortly afterwards.

The Court reserved its decision as to sentence, but given its incredulity to the arguments put for The West and for Armstrong,
we probably won’t be waiting for very long. It will be very interesting
to see what quantum of fine will be imposed given that the turnover of The West is huge, and that its disgraceful and unethical
so-called journalism on this occasion was so obviously intended to sell more
papers to a captive populace.

Peter Fray

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