Last week I wrote to Crikey to give Paul Armstrong, the editor of The West Australian, a bit of a hammering. This week I write to defend him.

The judge who aborted a manslaughter trial on Monday after the publication in The West of a letter containing what he considered prejudicial information should be held to account, not The West Australian or its editor Paul Armstrong (yesterday Item 15). The abortion was a bad decision and reflects the increasing paranoia of the Bench towards the role of the media. It also highlights the extremely low opinion that M’Luds hold jurors in, as the Beaks clearly believe us ordinary folk who serve on juries incapable of reading a newspaper without being easily influenced by what we read.

The letter that was supposedly so prejudicial to the jury was, but for one short passage in a sentence, a short and highly opinionated rant. The only specific mention of the trial in question was the author saying he’d sat in on “a trial” and heard excuses made and he was sick of them. That was it. No names, no case details.

For the judge to have determined — with the enthusiastic assistance of defence counsel — that such a minor passage would influence any juror to prejudge innocence or guilt was ridiculous.

Journalists should not be so quick to stick the boot into Armstrong over his list of transgressions with the courts. Do the transgressions reflect the fact that he is so often contemptuous of the courts — or that the courts are increasingly contemptuous of the role of the media in society?

The media in Australia is pretty tame already and if the courts had their way journalists would be tamer still. The courts enjoy telling us what we can and can’t report, and when, and in what context. Injunctions, private mediations and myriad other restrictions on our supposedly open and transparent justice system are the order of the day.

The courts say they’re doing it for the greater good but at heart our courts are patrician with a high-priest attitude that they know what is best for us and we should be thankful they are looking after us.

The limits on reporting anything to do with the justice system are already considerable. Unless journalists maintain a line in the sand it will retreat even further. Armstrong is holding the line and suffering for it.

Much is made of Armstrong’s controversial treatment of the young “suburban terrorist”. His treatment of the ward of the state was clearly illegal (and I do not share the opinions of most of my colleagues who argue it was also unethical) but should it have been so? WHY is it illegal to identify a ward of the state? Whose interests does it serve to hide these troubled kids from scrutiny, especially when neighbours’ lives are made a misery. I’m sure that following the West’s reporting
that kid has been provided the intervention he so clearly required and, I would hazard to guess, the neighbourhood is a more pleasant place to live. So where’s the downside been? Only to the authorities.

Armstrong and The West deserve criticism for a great many things, but
their treatment of justice reporting — in the face of unrelenting pressure to conform to what the courts believe journalism should be — is not one of them.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey

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