Perhaps the most important argument against what is termed “trial by media” is that when a person is subject to media attention for alleged wrongdoing, they are often are front-page news for some time. But once that same individual is cleared by the relevant authorities years later, the media has generally moved on, and the story no longer has the same appeal.

Meanwhile the subject of trial by media has had their career and reputation ruined or at least set back considerably.

That trial by media is to be avoided is illustrated neatly by the case of Melbourne surgeon Thomas Kossmann. Dr Kossmann was formerly a trauma medicine specialist at the Alfred Hospital and during 2007 and 2008 he was the subject of a flurry of media stories and a Victorian Ombudsman’s report, which accused him of poor skills, inappropriate billing and poaching patients. Kossmann was out of a job, with his career and reputation in Australia in tatters.

But over the weekend The Age reported, with much less fanfare and in a much less prominent place than its splashes two years ago, that Kossmann has been cleared of wrongdoing by the Medical Board of Victoria. This as The Age rightly noted, is the fifth regulatory body that has not brought action against Kossmann. The others are Victoria Police, the ATO, the Transport Accident Commission and Worksafe.

However, this may all be of little comfort to Kossmann. Since 2007 he has had to endure a run of very damaging headlines and stories about his conduct as a doctor at the Alfred. The Age ran stories with headlines such as “Patients maybe recalled: Adverse findings on surgeon’s TAC billing practices, treatment of victims (March 28, 2008) Top surgeon stood down after inquiry (November 28, 2007) or Disquiet as Kossmann resumes surgical work (October 1, 2008)”. The Herald Sun also ran highly negative Kossmann stories. Surgeon’s work and CV questioned was a headline the Herald Sun ran on May 21, 2008, and then there was Surgeons’ cash cows on July 28, 2009.

In fact, so uniform was this black view of Kossmann at this time that when I wrote a piece for Crikey on  May 22,  2008 — Kossman witch-hunt a study in procedural unfairness — within two hours of it being published, a person close to the story told me I had got it wrong in coming to his defence.

The passage of time and more importantly rigorous and vigorous investigations by five powerful investigatory bodies has vindicated Kossmann’s defence of his reputation as a human being and a doctor. His accusers have come up empty handed.

This latter part of the story is not, however, what most people will remember. If readers, watchers and listeners of the media remember the Kossmann case at all, it will be in the context of the sensational stories of a couple of years ago.

It is certainly not suggested that the media had no interest, or even duty, in reporting on the Kossmann matter. But the highly competitive atmosphere in which the media work these days unfortunately makes trial by media inevitable as the print and electronic media chase “big stories”. Dr Kossmann meanwhile has to somehow restore his reputation after the media caravan has moved on.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey