The ABC trod into a grey area of media law last night when it made the courageous – or perhaps risky – decision to include a former jury member on Australian Story.
The appearance of jurors is rare in Australian journalism. The states’ respective Jury Acts see to that. Although the laws differ from state to state, they are all so restrictive that it is usually impossible to include jury members in stories about alleged miscarriages of justice.
John Laws discovered how tough the rules can be in 2000 when he was given a suspended 15-month prison sentence for soliciting a juror to talk to him on air.
But this has not stopped Australian Story, which last night aired the second part of its account of the possible wrongful conviction and imprisonment of Graham Stafford for the murder of twelve-year-old Leanne Holland in Ipswich in 1991.
The program made a compelling case that Stafford’s conviction was unsound, based on evidence in a book by criminologist Paul Wilson and former detective Graeme Crowley. Amongst Stafford’s many supporters was the former jury foreman Peter Hobbs, who said “I was part of putting him in there. Now I have to be part of getting him out.”
Stafford was released on parole last year when he began the process of petitioning the Queensland Government for a pardon.
After hearing about Wilson and Crowley’s book, Hobbs rang a Queensland commercial radio station to give his version of events, and has since become part of the campaign to have Stafford’s name cleared.
But under section 70 of the Queensland Jury Act it is an offence to publish “jury information” and it is an offence for anyone to seek a former jury member to disclose that information.
According to the ABC “there is nothing in the Queensland legislation that would
prevent Mr Hobbs from participating in the interview with Australian
This appears to rest on the idea that “jury information” only pertains to discussion about deliberations inside the jury room. But even on this reading of the Act, the comments from Hobbs could be interpreted as a breach.
And there’s the question of how Hobbs came to be on the program? Did Australian Story approach him? If so is that soliciting?
More involvement by jurors in journalism may not be a bad thing. The legal profession should be subject to more transparency, so long as it can be achieved without a US-style free-for-all by jurors. Perhaps this would be a good test case on the rights of the media, especially as the ABC’s handling of the story has been sensitive.
However, with the Queensland Government considering a pardon for Stafford, the last thing it wants is more litigation on the matter. Perhaps that’s what the ABC is banking on?