When the media dutifully reported the claims of police and Victorian Premier John Brumby yesterday that an imminent terrorist attack had been avoided, did it not occur to them that they had been spun this line before?

It was when the then Victorian Police Commissioner Christine Nixon told the media in early November 2005 that an “imminent terrorist attack” had been prevented by the arrest of a group of young men and sheikh, Abdul Nacer Benbrika in the early hours of the morning. It was a fiction.

When Justice Bernard Bongiorno, in February this year, sentenced those of the accused from those arrests who were convicted of terrorism offences, he did so on the basis that “they knew the jemaah [group] led by Benbrika encouraged and/or took some act towards the commission of a terrorist act some time in the future on an as yet undetermined target.”

I acted for an accused in that case and saw firsthand this manipulation of the climate by the authorities to undermine the presumption of innocence. Two other examples will suffice.

The Victorian government’s Department of Corrective Services got into the act by classifying, on the basis of nothing more than the public hysteria that greeted their arrest, the accused in the maximum security unit of Barwon prison.

As Justice Bongiorno noted in ruling in March 2008, in which he threatened to halt the trial if the accuseds’ appalling conditions were not radically improved, neither “Corrections Victoria nor the Crown has ever placed any evidence before this Court in any form to justify either the accuseds’ classification or their treatment which is, in terms of the fairness of this trial, intolerable.”

Corrections Victoria also sought to have the accused placed in the dock with big perspex screens in front of them and to have nearly 40 security guards in court to guard them. But Justice Bongiorno ruled “as far as the presence of the prison officers is concerned the perception created by such a large number of them is that the accused are people who warrant being guarded in such a fashion to prevent their escape or to prevent other undesirable activity.”

He also ordered the Perspex screens be removed, noting that on “no occasion have I witnessed any behaviour of any of the accused either singly or together which would give any cause for concern let alone alarm from a security point of view.”

The Melbourne terrorism trial was not an isolated case. Remember the way politicians and the authorities destroyed Dr Mohammed Haneef though media leaks and prejudicial statements?

Given this history why is there not more scepticism on the part of the media about this current spate of arrests and detentions?

If only the media shared the view of one editor of a certain overseas periodical who, when offered a story on the raids last night, said no.

According to the writer who offered the piece, the editor wasn’t interested because “police claims often turn out to be well short of the truth.” How perceptive.

Peter Fray

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