So … a Queensland District Court judge has issued a permanent stay of a trial of a man charged with paedophilia; the man has been released after spending two and a half years in custody for the offence; the DPP will appeal.

Those are the facts and they are all we need to know, yet the media is in a frenzy, particularly in Queensland.

The media is repeating all sorts of allegations against the man — and thereby further reducing the prospects of a successful appeal. The main reason why the man has been released is a sustained media and political campaign against him. It seems that there is no presumption of innocence whatsoever in Queensland. The media and the politicians are the enemy of the public here — by over-publicising this man they have jeopardised any prospect of a conviction.

This is the ultimate in media hypocrisy. The media wants this man tried, convicted and jailed yet they abuse the privilege and responsibility they have. The end result is a great media story which should be headlined “How we, the media, made sure this man won’t go to jail”.

All of this will be litigated in the appeal, of course, and possibly in the High Court. The judge’s decision itself is quite unusual. The sensible response of a trial judge faced with this problem is to adjourn the trial for a long period and make effective suppression orders. When the case comes up for hearing, the jury would be given strong directions that the man must have a fair trial and that outside knowledge from the media must be ignored. The jury would also have to be told not to look at the internet. In Victoria, Carl Williams was tried and convicted by a jury despite massive negative media publicity. The whole jury system depends upon jurors being fair and obeying these directions.

This case highlights the tension between robust reporting (the public’s right to know) and the right of every person to a fair trial. Society has failed if it cannot give its worst a fair trial. Here we have an extreme result where the alleged offender walks away. This is a result that nobody wants.

Except, perhaps, Dr Patel.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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