It was a key development in one of Australia’s most notorious cases: former Guantanamo Bay inmate David Hicks revealed on Wednesday that he would be appealing his conviction for material support of terrorists in a US court.

“The move comes amid renewed pressure to shut the controversial military jail … His bid to overturn the conviction comes after a US court last year quashed a similar charge of material support for terrorism relating to Salim Hamdan, Osama bin Laden’s former driver,” reported AAP in a piece that appeared across News Limited and Fairfax papers, Sky News’ website, ninemsn and SBS.

The ABC did its own story in response, which gave some background about the attempt by the Commonwealth Director of Public Prosecutions to prosecute Hicks under proceeds of crime legislation.

And SBS television news did a brief piece on it after an item on Guantanamo Bay, with footage of Hicks being accompanied by a young woman, although the voiceover referred to his lawyer Stephen Kenny.

The only problem was, none of this was new. Hicks had said nothing to the media, and certainly not accompanied a young woman for coffee as per the SBS report (in fact it was file footage, and the woman was a journalist). His legal team had announced an appeal last October, after the Hamdan decision in the US. And that announcement was copiously covered at the time by The Oz and Fairfax and the ABC and SBS.

The slate of new articles “revealing” that Hicks was going to appeal came after a journalist contacted Hicks’ lawyer about the Guantanamo Bay hunger strikes (suddenly attracting considerable media attention despite having been going on since February) and Stephen Kenny indicated the appeal was still being prepared and might be lodged next month.

No one bothered to check their previous reporting of the Hicks matter to ensure they hadn’t already reported this revelation of his appeal before running the AAP copy.

Worse, they repeated the incorrect claim that Hicks had pleaded guilty to, or “admitted” as the original AAP report stated, the retrospective charge of material support of terrorism — the offence that simply no longer exists since Hamdan won his appeal. In fact, Hicks submitted an Alford plea, under which he did not admit guilt.

Hicks’ Alford plea isn’t a mere technicality or legal casuistry: along with the treatment of Hicks, it was an important element in why the attempt by the Commonwealth to prosecute Hicks under proceeds of crime legislation failed, as the CDPP noted in its statement on why it had dropped its pursuit of Hicks.

Bizarrely, the ABC’s report on Tuesday claimed “the DPP did not say why it dropped the case” when the ABC’s own story to which it linked just two sentences earlier in the piece contained a detailed report of the CDPP’s statement.

The non-story, complete with errors, partly reflects the way media websites can be hard-wired for error if outlets don’t check AAP copy first before putting it online, which led to the Whitehaven coal hoax at the start of the year.

But it also reflects an amnesia that appears to be deepening across the media as outlets cut journalists and rely increasingly on distributed copy. The result is, despite the remarkable ease with which research can now be done online, a perpetual present in which anything that happened more than five minutes ago is forgotten.

Peter Fray

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