The decision this morning of Victorian magistrate John Klestadt to release the name of the man charged last Friday in relation to the Churchill bush fires is a fraught one.

Since he was arrested on Friday, Brendan Sokaluk has been the subject of an out-of-control, frenzied smear and gossip attack by social networking sites like Facebook and news outlets such as the Herald Sun, which this morning described him as an “oddball”. That Mr Sokaluk is an as-yet innocent man appears to be completely forgotten by millions of people. No doubt, now his name has been released, his family, friends and nieghbours and he will be harassed and badgered for months even years to come.

On the other hand, Mr Klestadt was faced with the reality that the UK newspaper, the Daily Mail, couldn’t give a toss about the rights of the accused and his safety when it published his name and alleged details about Sokaluk yesterday — all available for every Victorian to read on the net. And it was not alone in ignoring the suppression order.

But now that we know who the accused is, the focus must be on ensuring that he gets a fair trial. This seems nigh on impossible in the current climate. Despite Police Commissioner Christine Nixon’s desire to ensure fairness in the justice process, she knows that her force has a track record of leaking to sympathetic media outlets — like the Herald Sun — juicy tit bits about an accused and what’s in the police brief against them. And the media will report on every act of vigilantism against Mr Sokaluk and his family, further confirming that the man is guilty, despite his not having had a trial.

And then there is this question: if Mr Sokaluk’s matter proceeds to trial, will it be possible to empanel 12 jurors who have not been exposed in a material way, and over a lengthy period of time, to all manner of scuttlebutt, conjecture and the like when they are on the net, Facebook, or watching, reading and listening to the mainstream media?

Couple this problem with the fact that many prospective jurors might have family, friends or work colleagues who have suffered in the fires, and the opportunity for an application to permanently stay proceedings against Mr Sokulok looks pretty good.

As the High Court said in 1992 in the case for defrocked Catholic priest Michael Glennon who had been relentlessly hounded by Derryn Hinch and who faced a criminal trial, one “cannot exclude, as a matter of law, the possibility that an “extreme” or ‘singular’ case might arise in which the effect of a sustained media campaign of vilification and prejudgment is such that, notwithstanding lapse of time and careful and thorough directions of a trial judge, any conviction would be unsafe and unsatisfactory by reason of a significant and unacceptable likelihood that it would be vitiated by impermissible prejudice and prejudgment. In such a case, a permanent stay may be granted.”

If current indications are any guide, the case of Brendan Sokaluk might well be such a case.

How the Sokaluk naming unfolded:

Friday 13th February: Channel Seven Sydney names Sokaluk, on the day he’s arrested, and runs footage of his Myspace page (including his photo). A reporter doorstops the accused’s  father outside Sokaluk’s house. Several forums name Sokaluk.

Saturday 14th February: The Courier Mail names Sokaluk in its print edition.

Saturday 14th February: A commentor on blog Friggin Loon names Sokaluk.

Sunday 15th February: The Mirror UK names Sokaluk and includes his image at 11am Sunday our time.

Monday 16th February: The Daily Mail UK names Sokaluk and includes his image at 10.25 our time this morning.

The order on publishing Sokaluk’s street address or his image remains in place. Crikey has pixallated all images.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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