Incitement is a crime in every state and territory of Australia. The courts take a dim view of people who encourage others to commit criminal offences and they particularly don’t like individuals taking actions which incite others to commit violence.

To incite the law says, is to “command”, “request”, “authorize”, “propose”, “advise” or “encourage”. And the person doing the inciting either intends that his or her statements constituting the incitement will be acted upon or they are recklessly indifferent as to whether it occurred or not.

These fraught times, where there is a smell of blood in the air as well as smoke, as communities, individuals and the media look to find someone to blame for the Victorian bushfires, are just the environment where incitement flourishes.

Take The Sydney Morning Herald’s columnist Miranda Devine. Ms Devine’s column last Saturday is worthy of examination in this context. Here’s what she said:

If politicians are intent on whipping up a lynch mob to divert attention from their own culpability, it is not arsonists who should be hanging from lamp-posts but greenies.

Now Ms Devine will no doubt argue that she did not mean her offensive remark to be taken literally. However, while context and the circumstances in which the words of incitement are used are important in considering if someone has committed an offence, it is arguable that given Devine’s prominence in the community, the fact that The Sydney Morning Herald highlighted her remarks by giving her column space on the front page of the newspaper, and that she did not clarify her remarks with a statement such as — of course I am not urging anyone to commit violence against a “greenie” — means that the police should examine the statement closely to see if it constitutes incitement.

But Ms Devine is not alone when it comes to appearing to condone violence. News reporters, such as Channel Seven’s Chris Reason, who on the weekend interviewed individuals who gave chapter and verse on acts of violence they want to commit on Brendan Sokaluk, the man charged in relation to the Churchill fires, might also be said to be inciting violence.

And the many hundreds of people who are busily using the socially irresponsible Facebook and other Internet sites to urge violence and revenge on Mr Sokaluk should also have their remarks examined closely by police to see if they too are encouraging or urging acts of violence.

To date no one appears to have acted on the inflammatory statements of Ms Devine and her fellow sabre rattlers, but that does not matter, says the law. It is enough that the incitement to commit a offence occurs, it is irrelevant that no one acted on the statement made.

Incitement to violence is a serious matter, because the potential consequences of it can be death and serious harm. That is why the police and prosecuting authorities should pay as much attention to detecting it and laying charges if the evidence supports it. And media organizations and website owners must be put on notice that they and their staff will be prosecuted if they assist in the incitement by publishing inflammatory material.

Peter Fray

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