Is it time to regulate the way media report criminal proceedings where the subject matter is terrorism or something equally newsworthy?
If today’s appallingly prejudicial reporting of the forthcoming trials of five Melbourne men charged with terrorism offences is any indication, then the answer is most definitely yes.
The five men, arrested and charged earlier this year in a blaze of publicity were yesterday in the Melbourne Magistrates Court where a brief of evidence, prepared by the police and security agencies and completely untested as to the admissibility and veracity of its contents, was given to a magistrate who then “committed”, or ordered the men to stand trial in the Supreme Court next year.
The police were only too happy, as is their wont in most high-profile cases, to give the media a copy of the untested materials they handed to the court, and the result, at least in the case of the Herald Sun and The Age this morning, are headlines and images which are highly prejudicial to the accused and which will make their quest for a fair trial harder.
The Herald Sun’s front page is extraordinary. It manages to link the most emotive event in recent Victorian history, “our bushfires” as it calls them, with statements, which the police say are made by the accused about those fires. Accompanying a grainy photograph of a person who is, the police say, one of the accused, in military fatigues and carrying a gun, is this headline: “Burning with hate: Accused terrorist plotted 20 minutes of hell and gloated about our Black Saturday tragedy, court told”.
How does the Herald Sun know this photo is of the accused? When was it taken? Does the Herald Sun know that the alleged conversation about bushfires are accurate?
The Age, which likes to think of itself as a little more circumspect and responsible, on this occasion failed that test. It’s front page includes the same grainy photo as used by the Herald Sun. The caption above it is an alleged quote from one of the accused: “These filthy people, they are coming down man.” The Age also includes a side bar story which contains edited “intercepted conversations of alleged terrorists.” Of course, for the sake of newspaper sales, only a minute fraction of the thousands of hours of transcript is included, and the juiciest most outrageous quotes used.
In the Family Court and Children’s Court there are strict rules about what the media can and cannot report so as to ensure fairness to the parties and to make sure that the media’s tendency to want to publish prurient and sensational material for its own sake, is kept in check.
It is time that the media was subjected to similar rules in terrorism cases when they are before the courts. What should those rules be? One obvious one is to ban publication of materials which have not been tested by a court so that some assessment has been made of their value and accuracy. Another should be, for the media to only be given a statement, agreed by the prosecution and defence, of what evidence there is against an accused in a case.
The media enjoys a right to know and a freedom to publish in a democratic society, but those freedoms must be exercised responsibly. That was not the case this morning.