I picked up Saturday’s Courier Mail (our one and only physical local paper here in Brisbane (sorry Brisbane News online only edition) at a coffee shop yesterday (I refuse to pay actual money for it) to be greeted by this front page :
Now clearly, the Courier Mail didn’t leave large white spaces on their front page, that is me deleting the aspects of the story that are in my opinion potentially prejudicial and I didn’t want to republish here and make the same mistake.
Why not republish Malcolm, this is just a blog?
Social media is generally governed by the same restrictions on publication that govern the mainstream media. See this example where the womens’ lifestyle site, Mumamia, found itself in trouble for potentially prejudicial commentary during the trial of now convicted child sex offender, Hey Dad!’s Robert Hughes.
Media Watch also commented on how these laws apply when the internet and google allow all of us to find images and facts that the mainstream media don’t publish :
My two cents here is that just because another media outlet, website or other service publishes something, that doesn’t excuse you from doing the same thing. Two wrongs don’t make a right and you as publisher, whether mainstream media outlet, website or blogger are still liable.
Why does the media sometimes pixelate faces?
Many of us would have seen the pixelation of the face of defendants accused of serious crimes such as murder. In particular it is in my opinion still quite clear under Australian law that in a murder trial the identity of the murderer is always an issue and as such the face or other identifying features (e.g. a large tattoo or a missing arm) should not be published.
The law has been clear on this point ever since Time was handed a $200,000 fine way back in 1995 for contempt of court by publishing the face of backpacker murderer, Ivan Milat, while he was still on trial. How does this front page really differ from the Courier Mail one?
The idea is that if a witness to the crime or events leading up to or after it sees the face or other identifying feature of the defendant in the media, that could cloud their recollection of the true facts. For example, having seen the face of the defendant on the front page of the Courier Mail, a witness might respond to a question from the prosecutor such as “Is this the man you saw walking along the street?” with “Yes, it most certainly is.“, when in fact they are recalling the face from the newspaper, not the actual sighting.
How can The Courier Mail show the defendant’s face?
Having acted in media law for over 20 years, this is one of those rules that is Media Law 101. However it seems the Courier Mail doesn’t think the law applies to them. Some other media outlets also seem to think the same thing. Publications such as this run the risk of prejudicing the trial and can be grounds for the trial to be aborted.
Identity is always an issue in a murder trial and publication of the defendant’s face in such a trial is in my opinion in contempt of court. It is in my view, irresponsible journalism.
What else is wrong with the Courier Mail story?
But the buck doesn’t stop there as you will see from the other pixelated aspects of the story. I have erred on the side of caution (and my limited picture editing abilities) and blocked out passages that also contain what in my view are contemptuous statements. I won’t say what they are here as to do so would be to republish the offending statements, but suffice it to say the media (and all of us in these days of social media) need to be careful about publishing evidence, statements or other facts that a jury may or may not hear in the trial.
Examples include aspects of evidence, prior convictions, other separate charges, some background facts and also comments or statements that infer the guilt or otherwise of the defendant.
What should the media do and what should happen here?
The Tia Palmer story is a very sad one and this blog article in no way is intended to take away from that. To ensure justice is done and trials are not aborted it is vitally important that the media plays by the rules. This is not the first instance by the Courier Mail of playing loose with the law in order to sell a few more papers (http://www.sbs.com.au/news/article/2014/03/21/qld-newspaper-faces-fine-over-court-breach) and it is time they in particular, but other media outlets also lifted their game.
What should happen here apart from the Curious Mail lifting their game? Yvette D’Ath, as Queensland’s Attorney General, I’m looking at you.