It worries me when journalists declare censorship as “completely
justified”, as Crikey editor Misha Ketchell did yesterday. Censorship
starts with good intentions – to protect the kiddies – but it all
ends up in a horrible, Orwellian mess as the tentacles extend
ever-outward and end up protecting bureaucrats and systems.

Perversely, the censorship that was supposed to protect kids, hospital
patients, the mentally ill, etc, ends up hurting them because the media
is frustrated in its attempts to root out the stories and the people in
them. Information can’t be disclosed – for privacy reasons. You can’t
report that – to protect privacy (never mind the community’s right to
know who’s before our courts and for what reason).

I’m not interested in a pernickity debate about the Alan Howe case.
Clearly he broke the law in identifying a minor but is the law
“completely justified” as Misha says it is? I just don’t think so. Laws
that censor what goes on in our courts do much more harm than good.

And I don’t buy the argument that the issue can be reported just as
effectively without identifying the subjects. Just imagine if that
logic were extended – we’d have newspapers filled with reports about
planning applications, business contracts, hospitals, schools, crime
and the like that don’t include a single name because someone decided
the names were irrelevant and that subjects deserved privacy.

We should be asking whether it’s time to wind back laws that protect
“children” from exposure in the media. Is a 14-year-old who seeks to
divorce his/her parents really a child? Is a 17-year-old facing court
for the third time on rape charges still a child? Shouldn’t there be
some limit to anonymity, restricted to the level of the crime – say
shoplifting as a first offence – to protect kids who quickly see the
error of their ways and who present little or no threat to their
neighbourhood? Shouldn’t anonymity be the exception rather than the
rule?

Alan Howe is spot-on when he says the judiciary and the media are
getting further and further apart. In a nutshell, the judiciary believes
society is better served by press restriction than press freedom.
History would suggest otherwise.

These are Mitchell’s personal views and not written in his capacity as editor of the Fremantle Herald.

Peter Fray

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