Greg Barns asks how Nine’s legal advisers could “get it so wrong” on Underbelly. Either he’s been watching bootlegs or he uncritically trusts the Victorian Court of Appeal’s take on the show’s unscreened episodes. Yesterday’s judgment provides little reason to do so.

The judges excoriate the series for such baffling sins as providing background on the gangland wars, giving an alleged murder victim a “human face” and “personality”, suggesting a motive for his killing and portraying the police as “heroic”, as if such claims could, would or should be hidden from a jury. Their biggest gripe is that three future episodes “corroborate” (ie, dramatise) an account by a contentious prosecution witness. So, it’s not that Underbelly reveals any secrets, but rather that Channel Nine’s gold-standard credibility is being lent to the Crown’s case.

Further complaints are that every episode “names” key players, portrays them with “actors” and – spoiler warning, Victorians! – reveals their involvement in “criminal activities”, not to mention sundry relationships and associations that are “generally irrelevant to any issue in the trial”. In case this makes Victorians think that they aren’t missing out after all, the wowsers also observe that Underbelly contains graphic violence, salacious behaviour, humorous dialogue and music. These features mark the series as mere “entertainment” of “limited value” to the public (much as Blue Murder taught Australians very little about NSW police corruption. If only it had left out the violence and salaciousness!)

Mysteriously absent is any suggestion that any episode of Underbelly, much less all of them, reveals anything that isn’t well known, would make a difference in this murder trial and won’t be adduced as evidence anyway, which is what Nine’s lawyers would have been looking out for. Instead, the Court’s beef is that the docudrama is bold, unprecedented and complex to manage (much like the killings themselves and the resulting prosecutions.)

Channel Nine’s boning by a Victorian court evokes about as much sympathy as a gangster’s death. But the rest of the media would be well advised not to keep to the sidelines, much less gloat, when a branch of the government is the victor in a turf war about the control of information.

Read other Crikey stories on this topic.

Peter Fray

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