Thursday, March 05, 2009

Victorian bushfires media redux

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.”


Duncan Macleod said...

Excellent critique Derek. So what do you think the approach should have been?

David J said...

I'd go deeper than Duncan, and ask "what long-term strategy could people who oppose this sort of lynch-mobbing adopt to make that behaviour less rewarding for the media and police?"

Which is a mouthful, I know, but it's the only possible way IMO to come up with a strategy that doesn't just mean we want people in the media to act against the interests of their employers, which is unlikely.

The only way this sort of behaviour would stop, or become less prevalent, is if it appealed to fewer people. Is it possible, for instance, to somehow confront school students, in a systematic way, with the effects of this mob mentality, perhaps in a similar way to Jane Elliot's "Blue Eyes, Brown Eyes" exercise?

Derek Barry said...

Thanks for the comments, guys.

The code of ethics has a clause that reads "Journalists have the right to resist compulsion to intrude."

However as David says, people are unlikely to act against the interest of their employers making this clause difficult to achieve in a cut-throat business.

There are no easy answers, however it is incumbent on journalists to explore every angle of a story and not just lazily plump for the one that is likely to press viewers and readers emotional buttons. Journalists have a privileged role in society, describing it to itself and as such have a responsibility to be fair and respect the rights of others.

David, that's an interesting thought about turning the whole argument on its head. Space and time don't allow me to expand upon it now but it is an idea I'd like to explore further.

For now, I would just say that what you are describing is a wholesale cultural change which is never easy or quick to achieve - not that that makes it any less of a worthwhile challenge.

Duncan Riley said...

"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,"

The link to the religious group came from his MySpace page. We dug into the group, and it is factual that they hold extreme views. The link between the two was made by Sokaluk himself in the public domain.

That you'd suggest that somehow we made this point up without evidence says far more about yourself than anything we wrote. Sloppy, and ironically you make the same mistakes you accuse others of.

Derek Barry said...

Duncan (R),

I'm not denying the US group has extreme views - the point I was making is just because Sokaluk linked to the site does not necessarily means he shares their views.

I admit however that my research was imperfect as the Myspace page in question was deleted (and unavailable in Google cache) so I can not be absolutely certain of how the link with "The Truth of God" was worded.

I'll be happy to publish a retraction if you can tell me what evidence you found that supports the case that Sokaluk was a member of the group or supported their views.

Duncan Riley said...

the link was VERY out of place on his profile page. Also understand that on the MySpace page, the placement was quite intentional. This wasn't like a blog post link; hell, I could be accused of far worse given some of the stories/ sites I've linked to over the years in posts. He had, of a few links in his sidebar, linked to this mob. The links in this context would be generally (ie the norm) accepted as being of "support." Obviously I can't prove he was a member, although again, the link in itself could suggest more than support alone. We may never know for sure, but it was the only link of its type, and it stood out.

We didn't pursue the angle further, and perhaps that was remiss of me. I'm not asking for a retraction, that's not something I'd normally do, but I did want it on the record that this idea that the suggestion of a link to this group wasn't made up or fanciful (which I believe the post implies). The link came from the public record based on facts at hand. There was nothing untoward about it.

On the broader question of the presumption of innocence, and some of the reporting, I'm actually find myself agreeing. It is however a fine line between the public right to know. Can we all do better: perhaps. At least I'm willing to take the other points on board.

Derek Barry said...

Duncan (R),

Thanks for responding.

I can see your point re the implication of the post and all I can say on that is that it was not my intention to say the link was fanciful, merely oversold.

On cooler reflection also, my statement about a "nasty little article" was over the top and probably unfair.

As a rule, I quite enjoy The Inqusisitr's breezy mix of stories.