Media negotiates a difficult line

from page 4 of The Australian, May 2, 1996

by Errol Simper

  The media has a crucial role in informing the community about the Port Arthur slaughter, but was negotiating a difficult line between informing people and potentially infringing the rights of the accused, media executives, lawyers and academics agreed yesterday.
  Most believe firmly the circumstances of the slayings make it acceptable to publish photographs of the accused man, Martin Bryant, and do not believe it will prejudice either Bryant getting a fair trial or jury deliberation.
  "Most media reporting of the tragedy has been sensitive, focusing on the grief and the loss," the president of the NSW Council Of Churches, Mr Ross Clifford, said in Sydney last night. "The only coverage I would be against is anything that might encourage a copy-cat episode or encourages an eye-for-an-eye mentality. We have to ensure natural justice, not a lynch-mob howl for retribution."
  Most media outlets have use Bryant's picture in newspapers or on television, though Tasmania's Launceston Examiner blacked out the face and the Nine television network has not identified Bryant via its Hobart affiliate station. In some cases Nine has offered Tasmania alternative programming to its Australian mainland fare.
  The Tasmanian director of Public Prosecutions, Mr Damian Bugg, wrote to several media outlets on Tuesday, indicating he was giving "careful consideration" to contempt of court proceedings after "extensive media coverage of the tragic circumstances of the incident at Port Arthur."
  Mr Bugg said media outlets in Tasmania had "not only published full accounts of the tragic incident" but had "also seen fit to either make comment or publish information and photgraphic material" which could lead to identification of the suspected person and speculation on his mental stability.
  The former head of the ABC legal department and media lawyer, Mr Bruce Donald, said last night that the media had to be careful about labelling Bryant a murderer or reflecting on his mental condition. But the circumstances of the slayings made it unlikely that identity would be a factor in a trial.
  "You have an accused person apprehended by police in a siege environment, someone who was observed by dozens of witnesses," Mr Donal said. "The likelihood of his identity being a contentious issue at a trial is so relatively low that in the circumstances I believe the public interest and community grief become the more relevant factor."
  Mr Donald's view was supposed in Brisbane by the associate-professor of journalism at the University of Queensland, Professor Bruce Grundy, who said he did not find arguments against identifying Bryant "at all compelling."
  "This is an outrage so great that there's probably a very substantial public interest in publishing these photographs," he said.
  Professor Grundy believes investigative journalism -- such as into Bryant's backgroupnd -- is "legitimate but difficult". He said: "Reflecting on whether someone's mad or deranged is legally very difficult and I suspect journalists wanting to write about that are safer quoting a qualified person, someone able to speak with authority."
  The NSW director of Public Prosecutions, Mr Nick Cowdery, urged caution, even about identifying Bryant.
  "There are two principal reasons for this," Mr Cowdery said, "It could be the case that eye witnesses asked to identify him later may, instead, come to identify the photograph. And there is a risk the minds of jurors who may have to try the case will be unfairly prejudiced by pictures and stories they've read or seen."
  All media outlets contacted yesterday have taken considerable legal advice and say that their coverage of the issue will continue to have legal input.
  The national editor of television news for the ABC, Peter Munckton, said the corporation had "looked closely" at the issue, had decided it was difficult to see how identity could be a subsequent issue and had identified Bryant, both in Tasmania and the rest of Australia.
  "We have a set of editorial principles in place and at this stage we're not altering our network coverage specifically for Tasmania," Mr Munckton said.
  The legal advisor to SBS, Ms Bridget Godwin, said the station was identifying Bryant. But some segments reflecting on the background of the accused had "been pulled" after careful consideration.
  The director of news and current affairs for Nine, Peter Meakin, said specific material was being screened in Tasmania but suggestions that the network's mainland coverage could be prejudicial appeared to be "a long bow."

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