Western Australian Attorney General Jim McGinty has launched a scathing attack on The West Australian and its editor Paul Armstrong in parliament, and the Director of Public Prosecutions will soon launch contempt of court proceedings against Armstrong and his paper after information published in the The West on Monday led to a manslaughter trial being aborted on its final day.

The Oz reports today:

On Monday, all of the evidence in the manslaughter trial had been heard and closing addresses were due to start when District Court judge Paul Healy aborted the trial of Jake Becker, 20, accused of unlawfully killing 17-year-old Skye Barkwith in a dispute outside a tavern last year.
Judge Healy said the publication by The West Australian of a letter to the editor about the trial was “unbelievable and destructive”.

Attorney General Jim McGinty condemned the paper and its controversial editor yesterday, “When the irresponsible and reckless publication of articles in a daily newspaper directly affects the administration of justice, the community is the only loser,” McGinty told parliament.

On the face of it, I can only agree that The West Australian and its editor have been recklessly and irresponsible in publishing this letter on the final day of the trial. The DPP estimates that this trial has already cost taxpayers in excess of $100,000. There’s also the cost of legal representation for the accused as well as the emotional strain on the victims’ family and friends, witnesses and the accused and his family. For all concerned to now have to go through this extremely stressful experience again will be financially and emotionally taxing….

Armstrong is a repeat offender — and a slow learner — when it comes to this kind of incident. The West Australian was fined $15,000 and Armstrong was fined $5000 after they were found guilty of contempt last year after a series of articles identified a child as a ward of the state. The paper published a photograph and the nickname of a nine-year-old Aboriginal boy who had committed a series of crimes and had become, in the words of The West’s front page, a “suburban terrorist.”

An anonymous Crikey Perth correspondent wrote an account of the court case back in July last year:

Counsel for the Attorney General, George Tannin SC…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.

Maybe the legal team at The West have been on holidays in the last few months. According to The Oz, the paper has been linked to the “aborting of three trials in two months, after prejudicial information was published about them.”

Meanwhile, Crikey understands that managing director of the West Australian Newspapers group, Ken Steinke, has commissioned market research into the public perception of The West and its role in the community.  

Peter Fray

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