Almost four weeks after the devastating bushfires that destroyed the town (picture credit: The Age), many Marysville residents are angry they have still not been allowed home. Victorian Police commissioner Christine Nixon has appealed for patience as detectives continue the painstaking task of interviewing all 600 residents of Marysville in the belief that the fire that destroyed the town and killed 39 people was deliberately lit. The state coroner has demanded each of the 78 towns affected by the fires be investigated for arson links however there have been very few charges laid to date.
The most publicised of those charged is Brendan Sokaluk who is accused of starting the fires in the Gippsland town of Churchill. His arrest on 14 February unleashed a tidal wave of anger. A few days earlier, I wrote, “pity some poor bastard who might be accused of arson. He or she will be pilloried as the enemy of the nation and will be lucky to survive to face trial.” And so it is proving for Sokaluk, for whom the presumption of innocence is a sick joke. Within hours of being charged, he was viciously attacked in the media and in social network sites to the point where some have questioned whether he is capable of getting a fair trial.
It may be impossible to find jurors who have not been exposed to his trial by media. Seven News were among the worst offenders, blatantly exploiting community fury on the day after Sokaluk was charged with arson (but before the suppression order on his naming was lifted). Firstly their reporter Chris Reason mentioned some of the gruesome quotes that appeared on Facebook hate pages and claimed many residents of Churchill agreed with their sentiments. He then did a vox pop in the town asking the leading question “What do you reckon the town would do if they got their hands on him?” One resident inevitably responded, “Oh, they'd tear him apart.”
Print media were also keen to get on the bandwagon. Sydney’s Daily Telegraph did a prurient search of Sokaluk’s Myspace profile and deduced he had recently been rejected by a girlfriend, implying here was a complete loser who deserved the public anger the media was projecting on to him. They also immediately followed this information with an appeal for readers to spread more dirt about him “Do you know Brendan Sokaluk?” shrieked the Tele. “ Call us in confidence on...”
Internet news sites weren’t much better. The Inquisitr published a nasty little article in which it described the Myspace page as “spooky”. It said the page was “scattered with appalling spelling”, which suggested Sokaluk “may have been illiterate, or had suffered a learning disability.” The article also hinted that Sokaluk may have an affiliation to a US religious group which holds extreme views against women clergy and gay people. Though no evidence has emerged to support these wild accusations, they all serve to undermine Sokaluk’s presumption of innocence.
Lawyer Greg Barns says Victoria Police also acted in collusion with the media to paint him in the worst possible light. Barns said the source of most of the material about the suspect came from police tips and briefings to friendly journalists. It is in the interests of police to leak information to create “a climate of guilt” around the accused and also makes the force look good. In the Sokaluk case, police tarnished his reputation by linking the arson charge with a totally unrelated charge of child pornography possession. Sokaluk was morphing into the personification of evil.
As former Age editor Michael Gawenda wrote last month, for journalists the bushfires were all about beating the competition to get the story. Under pressure from editors and executive producers, journalists seek out the human interest stories without regard for the feelings of the subjects of those stories. They add to the trauma and pay no respect to privacy, turning their subjects into exploited victims in name of profit. “[The media] all know that a disaster like this is not just a shocking and grief-producing event, but an opportunity,” wrote Gawenda. “They know that their ratings will climb through the roof and newspaper circulations will spike.”