Tabloid journalists and lawyers have a strange relationship. Tabloid journos often have little regard for the legal rights, privacy, presumption of innocence or reputation of (especially accused) persons they report on. So I found it quite ironic when a tabloid journo threatened me some years back with a defamation suit. S/he was unhappy with my description of his/her/its ridiculous reporting of a chap s/he claimed was a terrorist.

The chap was actually accused of keeping bomb-making materials in his house. The police had already ruled out terrorism-related charges. But for the journo reporting the incident, the accused was a Muslim who had framed Arabic calligraphy on his walls and a Koran and some religious books in his bookshelf.

Anyway, the point I’m trying to make is that some journos are quick to see accused deprived of their rights, without realising that their hysterical reporting threatens the rights of all of us. Journos included.

Rights that people have fought and died to defend over the centuries. Like the presumption of innocence, and the right to refuse to be interviewed by police. These rights form a key plank in our criminal justice system. In a liberal democracy, these rights form an important element of “The Rule of Law”.

So when Ben Fordham accosted Belinda Neal and asked questions like “What have you got to hide?”, he effectively suggested Neal’s exercise of a basic legal right was illegitimate. He basically said she must talk, if not to the police then to viewers of A Current Affair.

Now let’s put the shoe on the other foot. Let’s say Fordham or one of his camera crew were the subject of a police investigation for potentially assaulting Neal (as I hope they are), what would Fordham say if Neal suggested that he and/or his crew must submit to a police interview?

My guess is Fordham would cry foul and self-righteously claim political interference in the criminal justice system. Fordham might even instruct his lawyers to express their disgust at this political interference, both before the magistrate and the cameras.

Populist journos and politicians are crying foul over one Queensland judge’s decision to release convicted pedophile Dennis Ferguson after finding that media saturation had made it impossible for a jury to deal with the facts of Ferguson’s impending charges in a “dispassionate” manner, despite the weakness of the Crown’s case.

Instead of blasting the judge, tabloid journos and shock jocks need to consider how their own conduct is compromising our criminal justice system. These same shock jocks should ask themselves what would happen if they were accused of pedophilia or some other criminal offence. They should understand that even accused persons deserve human rights. After all, until they are convicted, they are innocent.

Tabloid media needs to understand the meaning of innocence. And before anyone accuses me of sounding like a typical criminal defence lawyer, allow me to disclose that my area of practice is employment and workplace relations law.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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