There is a disturbing trend that’s been going on for some years now. It’s the way police and prosecuting authorities tend to work hand in glove with the media when someone is charged with serious crimes, with the express or coincidental aim of contaminating public opinion against the defendant.

Yesterday’s front-page splash by the Herald Sun and today’s follow-up stories on John Xydias, who has been charged with multiple rapes, are a case in point. Sure, the Herald Sun and other media outlets have been careful to use the word ‘alleged’ when describing Xydias or supposed victims, but the general impression is that this man is guilty as charged.

For example, take these remarks from a friend of television celebrity, Naomi Robson, with whom it is alleged Xydias was obsessed. According to the friend, Robson’s “concern is for the victims and she hopes they are getting the best possible care and support”.  Hang on a minute, where’s the presumption of innocence in all this?

And today, we have media reports that more ‘alleged’ victims are coming forward and then there’s Xydias’s girlfriend, happy to talk to the media, telling the Herald Sun that “Mr Xydias had ruined his own life, her life and the lives of ‘those girls'”.
No doubt the Victorian Police has been happy to cooperate with the media in giving them access to material about Xydias and the case. And in doing so, they have created an atmosphere in Melbourne today, where there appears not a shadow of doubt about Xydias’s guilt.

How can this man get a fair trial given this sensationalist and prejudicial publicity? What happened to the presumption of innocence? These are questions which it’s fair to ask of Victoria Police, the Herald Sun and other media outlets.

The way in which the investigators have played the media card in the Xydias case has parallels in the arrest of two men in May this year, alleged to be members of the Tamil Tigers and alleged to have redirected tsunami relief funds to the rebel group.

In that case, only a few days after these arrests, The Weekend Australian carried a report by one of its senior reporters, Cameron Stewart, which effectively set out the prosecution case against the two men. Once again, one was left in no doubt as to their guilt or innocence – the headline said it all. “How tsunami cash bankrolled Tigers.”

It’s time that the courts intervened in media reporting of arrests. The way it stands at the moment, the cards are stacked heavily in favour of the prosecuting authorities, and defendants can have their chance of a fair trial dashed within 24 hours of their arrests by sensationalist and frenzied reporting. There need to be some guidelines that ensure that reporting of arrests is both sober and fair.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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