There is a good deal of whining from news organizations in Victoria about the number of suppression orders issued by courts. This week alone, there have apparently been 18 such orders issued in cases. But instead of blaming lawyers and judges for being too precious and undermining the public’s right to know, perhaps journalists and their masters might like to take aim at one of the major causes of suppression orders in Victoria, the Herald Sun.
The Herald Sun has been, along with other News Limited newspapers, running a Right to Know campaign and one of its major beefs is the propensity of Victorians courts in recent years to limit the publication of information about certain cases.
Well, there’s a good reason why such orders have been sought. I know from personal experience.
I made and joined with other lawyer in seeking suppression orders in the Melbourne terrorism trial that was before the courts from the end of 2005 until early this year. My opponent was generally the very affable and aptly named Justin Quill, who acts for the Herald Sun on occasions.
In the terrorism case, the Herald Sun’s performance during the committal proceedings held in the Melbourne Magistrates Court mid way through 2006 was often appallingly sensationalist and prejudicial to our clients. Some of the coverage of such a prejudicial magnitude, that suppression orders remain in place almost three years later.
The most egregious example of the Herald Sun’s irresponsibility came a day after the verdicts in the trial in September last year, in spite of the fact that some of the accused still faced further criminal proceedings. It was a front page splash with the headline “Westgate Bomb Plot”. The story, by Keith Moor, began with this statement: “The West Gate Bridge was one of several bombing targets for Muslim cleric Abdul Benbrika and his home-grown Melbourne terror cell.”
This statement was, as Andrew Dodd reported for Crikey on 17 September, a fiction. The “evidence” cited by Moor was an inconsequential and irrelevant conversation between a couple of the accused which was not even used by the prosecution at the eight month trial.
And the Herald Sun wonders why there are so many applications for suppression orders!
Last month, that newspaper’s coverage of the charging of Brendan Sokaluk in relation to a fire that occurred on Black Saturday, was equally irresponsible. The Herald Sun ran articles which were essentially populist psychobabble about Sokaluk, who by the way is an innocent man at this point and may always be so. On February 17, the paper ran a piece which included this statement: Sokaluk is “a loner who went to a special school, he tried to become a CFA volunteer for years but was always knocked back”.
The newspaper also brought Mr Sokaluk’s sister into its coverage, publishing as photo of her in a fire officer outfit with angels wings. For what purpose? None, other than to cause her misery.
The Herald Sun is of course not alone in its propensity to simplify, sensationalize and treat an accused person’s rights with relative contempt. Suppression orders are made reluctantly by the courts despite what the media thinks, but the fundamental right to a fair trial is sacrosanct and the media needs to ensure its coverage of criminal cases is sober, factual and above all fair.