I’ve spent a significant amount of time this morning trying to work out why I am finding it difficult to care about whether or not Neil Mitchell did the right thing in naming the Collingwood AFL players questioned by police about allegations of s-xual assault.

After all, it is an important issue, going to ethics about privacy and fairness. This is the kind of thing that I’ve written thousands of words about in other cases. (Sad, I know). So why can’t I get exercised now?

I think I’ve finally figured out the reason for my ennui. All week, most media people who were interested have known the names. And there has been no legal impediment to publishing them.

Everyone was watching everyone else. Inevitably somebody would break ranks and others would follow.

And so it came to pass. As soon as Mitchell named the names, every other media outlet in the nation ran them big, sometimes while banging on about how they were too holy and ethical to do what Mitchell had done.

Yeah, sure.

As has been observed many times before, media understanding of the requirements of privacy and ethics tends to be conveniently flexible. Like tyro members of a high school debating society, media bosses argue the case for whatever they have done most recently, even if their stand directly contradicts what they have done before or are contemplating doing.

So it’s not okay to name two footballers in this context, but it is okay to out NSW MP David Campbell? So it’s not okay to name them, but it is okay to run photos of a woman you believe to be Pauline Hanson, supposedly taken in the privacy of a hotel room long before she entered public life? And on it goes.

In some states, it is contempt of court to name the alleged perpetrator of a s-xual offence until they have been committed for trial — that is, until the court finds there is a case strong enough to need answering.

Yet this is not the case for other kinds of crime. It has always struck me as a strange inconsistency. Certainly r-pe and s-xual assault are horrible crimes, but so are murder and serious assault of other kinds, and the media can name the accused in those cases as soon as charges are laid, or before. And media outlets regularly do so, particularly when ordinary people — unlikely to sue — are involved.

In this case, the players have not been charged, and may never be charged. They are certainly entitled to the presumption of innocence. Is it really such a big deal that in this one case, one journalist pushed past a line that the others were shakily holding, while waiting for the first break?

I don’t think so. Everyone, Mitchell and his critics, should get off their high horses. They look very silly up there.

Marginally more interesting is the difficulty of keeping anything secret or suppressed these days, when stories break first from gossips in direct possession of the facts, who use social media (often anonymously, but that’s a different story.

There is another case going on at the moment — again most journalists know all the details — concerning s-xual allegations against a prominent sporting figure. In this case, though, there are serious legal suppression orders in place, designed to protect the alleged victim. Yet, if you know enough to do a Google or a search on Twitter, you can gather the jist of the allegations.

I am sure it is only the law, not the principle, that is restraining the media from deciding the public interest demands that all is told. It will be interesting to see how that one develops.

The Mitchell case? I’m sorry. I can’t get worked up about it.

Peter Fray

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