Little chance of fair trials when so many articles imply guilt
Date: September 12 2008
Bouquets to the Herald for publishing Belinda Neal's staunch and quite proper defence of her right to silence over the Iguanas affair ("Media chip away at a cornerstone of our rights", September 11).
The right to silence is, and must continue to be, one of the linchpins of a civilised criminal justice system. It applies to all Australian citizens and does not disappear just because a person has been elected or appointed to some high office.
Brickbats to the Herald for describing, in the same issue, Dr Graeme Reeves using a pejorative phrase better suited to a member of Hitler's elite. This is, of course, a description used by nearly all media outlets of recent time. No doubt it sells papers, brings in viewers and thereby raises profits. It does not profit our society, however, when the use of such terminology makes it nigh on impossible for the accused to receive a fair trial. Apparently the presumption of innocence must make way for the right to pen an eye-catching headline.
I wonder if any editors take pause to contemplate, when deciding to run with any given story, whether the person named therein will have their right to a fair hearing irreversibly prejudiced.
It is simply not good enough to argue that trial judges can warn jurors to put such reports/descriptions out of their minds. Mud sticks.
I wrote in the Herald more than five years ago, when I was still a senior NSW crown prosecutor: "Perhaps the time has come for the federal government, as well as all states and territories, to legislate that there shall be no publication of any material which might identify an alleged perpetrator until such time as the relevant tribunal has made a finding of culpability."
Those words fell, and continue to fall, on deaf ears.
Nicolas Harrison Lismore
The media does seem to manage to find all sorts of ways around sub judice matters.