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Designing a media law course for reflection in action

By MARK PEARSON

 

Griffith University doctoral candidate David Costin recently interviewed me as part of his research into engaging with the online environment in higher education and has kindly allowed me to reproduce sections of that interview transcript in my blog. Here, in the first edited installment, we discuss my design of an online / on campus course in media law.

Q:        In the online environment, what theory and pedagogical knowledge do you draw upon when you’re operating in the online environment?

A:         I can mention a principal theory that’s driven a lot of my career and I carry into the online environment… My first major point is that I believe theory and pedagogical understanding and approaches are crucial to teaching in the online environment. But they are not necessarily something that you are conscious of every day of your teaching. I think it’s fundamental to your learning in the area, it’s fundamental that you revise that occasionally, revisit it, but my own experience is it’s not something that is at the forefront of your mind as you’re teaching every class. So, the main pedagogical approach which is entrenched in a theory that I’ve used since the 1980s and have carried into the online environment is Donald Schon’s work in teaching – The Reflective Practitioner. My area of journalism education is very much about preparing students to do what Donald Schon called ‘reflect-in-action’, which is basically when they are confronted with new situations in the newsroom (or these days in various professional communication environments), that they will also be able to reflect, sometimes innately (like I do on pedagogies and theories). In that same way, one should be confident that they can reflect on what I have taught them and be able to solve their own problems, whatever they may be, technologically and ethically and professionally in changing environments. So to my mind, if that is done properly, then you effectively have someone who is a change agent and is able to reflect in action upon their education, no matter how long ago that may have been, to shape and be able to come to a consciously right decision in their work in a new context. And that’s my take on the Schon approach.

I have something to add to that though and that is in more recent years, since 2013, I’ve developed what – I’ve worked with colleagues and have coined the expression ‘mindful journalism’. Because in my undergraduate years, I did explore some Eastern philosophies and so on and in more recent times I’ve used meditation practises for various reasons in my life and have rediscovered Buddhism, but from a secular perspective. So in other words, some of the foundation stones of Buddhism are actually very secular, reflection in action practices. So mindful journalism is something I’ve actually built into my media law classes, teaching students how to reflect in action because my biggest worry in teaching media law is that a graduate who may have only passed with 50 per cent result, may not be able to recognise in the newsroom the legal risk that should be apparent to them. So I’m using this as a way of embedding an approach that hopefully deepens their knowledge at the tertiary level enough to be able to carry with them into the workplace.

Q:        So your basis, then, is working from that practical on-the-ground reflection status, would that be correct?

A:         That is correct. Obviously media law has two major components to it. One is enough knowledge about and familiarity or literacy to do with the language of law, to be able to understand what defamation or contempt of court or confidentiality, these sorts of things are. And the second element is the actual putting that into practice, to be able to navigate those laws effectively in a highly competitive, under resourced, time poor, stressful news environment where there are other imperatives, in fact there are very significant rewards for pushing the boundaries of the law in a technological era based on clickbait and page views. So the challenge within that is being able to do that both in the classroom environment, but also in an online environment, so there’s no reason why media law, from that content end of the equation, can’t be taught very effectively both in the classroom and online or in a hybrid way.

Q:        Okay.

A:         It’s only recently we’ve really ramped up the online offering of the course and so I’ve had to encounter the challenges of being able to capture that for students just working in a fully online environment as well. …So the course, as I’ve redeveloped it for this year, well for the past few years, but I’ve really refined it for this year, has a dovetailed knowledge-problem based approach. So it’s textbook driven. The Journalist’s Guide to Media Law is the main textbook used in the field throughout Australia … which has little exercises and things in the back of it. Clearly in law you just have to cover certain topics, but unlike a standard legal text, you would already see in the textbook itself, being The Journalist’s Guide, a handbook for communicators with the chapters and headings reflecting – it’s not what they – typically a law textbook is what they call black letter law. … It’s multi-dimensional.

So the second element is a problem based approach and it used to be we had a problem a week that they were dealing with a scenario and now we’ve narrowed that down so they are having more time to work with particular problems and they’re getting guidance within that. So there are, over the course, four or five problems that they work with over the 12 weeks and the first three are submitted as a learning journal approach to the problems. Not learning journal as in “what did I learn from it?”, but learning journal as in a record of their answers to key newsroom law questions that they would need to answer about these things. So if you go to the actual course itself, all of this material is available to the students who are on campus and online.

Q:        Okay.

A:         And I mean we have a very good – within our group here, we have a very good blended learning team based out of Mt Gravatt and they run various courses and a couple of years ago I did the online learning course. A lot of this has been developed with their curriculum design assistance. But the idea is that the students – there’s a certain suite of activities and a lot of it is to do with developing their understanding of reflecting on their learning, even from the very early stages. So in the early slides, it explains the actual – this is just the mini lecture, so there are only three slides here, but it has the study plan of what they’re expected to do as part of their course.

Q:        Yeah, yeah.

A:         So it’s a little, just like a five to 10 minute mini lecture, there’s a learning problem that they preview early on and there are online discussion boards or tutorials or both that they can attend. They read the relevant chapters and the study guide and earlier on it was starting to get to the point that even the textbook talks about mindful practice and the textbook navigates what I call the “legalities and the realities” of media law. In other words, it’s not just about what’s legal and illegal, it’s about how one might navigate legal risk within a work environment and not just for journalists but for public relations practitioners, other new media entrepreneurs, those sorts of things. So they read the chapters, there’s an online study guide as well …

Some people prefer the print material, so they get just a basic run through the main areas. The learning problems are set up with each learning problem the student having to consider the scenario that is put to them in the terms of what are the main media law issues arising in this scenario, what laws and defences might apply, what cases or examples would you draw upon or talk about or to make your decisions there and assuming your goal is to publish as much of it as is legally allowable, you know, what are you going to do in this situation. Or there’s a longer one here, the really prickly things that we normally really hone in on are ones to do with situations involving defamation and contempt of court. There should be really problem two here somewhere, it was like the arrest of a sex murderer on Moreton Island, … – with little study tasks for the online students, which are normally quite similar to the ones at the back of the textbook chapters, although there are a couple of variations in there. So they answer the end of chapter questions, the study guide and the textbook, complete the formative quiz, so that’s something I picked up from the blended learning people, that the – and also just a bit of reading around that area of knowledge, because there’s that knowledge base component.

At the end of each of the five modules, there’s a 20-question quiz. On the actual substantive knowledge where the students have 30 minutes to be able to look up the textbook to get their answers as to what defamation is and that kind of stuff. But what I learnt through my reading around this kind of thing was that the learning is embedded more in that context if the students are presented with the same question again and so for the more important topics like defamation and contempt, those questions are geared to repeat in the later formative quizzes and the formative quizzes are non-assessable but the final one is worth 20 per cent of the assessment and is done in a single hit of 20 randomly generated questions from the others with no backtracking allowed.

Q:        The thing I like with what you’ve just done is that you’ve actually, in some ways, you’ve talked about your problems and then how you’ve set it out, in some ways you’re actually catering for that diversity of the learner too. …If they don’t want the audio, they can go to this to look at the problem or they’ve got that visual …

A:         Yeah and that’s something that’s been drilled home by our blended learning people through the various online development courses, is to try to cater to those different learning styles. And so while on the slide I’m saying they should do all of these things and always return to the learning problems, so preview the learning problem, come back to it later, engage in the tutorial discussion or discussions about it and find and reflect upon the recent readings. Because in media law there’s always new cases unfolding and stuff, people find and so we share that on our Twitter, #MLGriff Twitter feed, which is just a hashtag that people put on it. So this Rebel Wilson’s in the news, all the students are throwing that there. I tweet to that when I’m at seminars and things like that. And you know, it becomes almost like a really useful summary of media law because there are more than 400 students [per year] doing this course … and I’ve got them all integrated into the same program. OUA is a different site just because there’s just slightly different terminology and everything that they use.

Q:        Yeah, that’s right, yeah.

A:         So at any one time, through some of the activities such as the discussion board, you’ll get three of those four cohorts all there on the discussion board, discussing the learning problem or having general course questions or the tutors are engaging with them in their discussion about the answer.

Q:        Okay, so it’s practical – so I suppose what you’ve done is you’ve set up so it’s a practical, interactive course with reflection at the same time, which would then assist them in their development down the track with it, I suppose.

NEXT WEEK: A mindful dimension to the media law course

———–

Disclaimer: While I write about media law and ethics, nothing here should be construed as legal advice. I am an academic, not a lawyer. My only advice is that you consult a lawyer before taking any legal risks.

© Mark Pearson 2017

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Scandalising the court – backgrounding the recent Victorian Court of Appeal matter

By MARK PEARSON

The ancient contempt charge of ‘scandalising the court’ appeared alive and well last month when the Victorian Court of Appeal formally stated its concerns about criticisms made by three Australian government Ministers, published in the national daily newspaper The Australian.

The statement noted:

Given that the court’s decisions in both cases were pending, the court is concerned that the attributed statements were impermissible at law and improperly made in an attempt to influence the court in its decision or decisions. Further, the court is concerned that some of the statements purported to scandalise the court. That is by being calculated to improperly undermine public confidence in the administration of justice in this state in respect of the disposition of the appeals that the court has presently under consideration.

The court was further concerned that the attributed statements were made by three ministers of the Crown. The statements on their face:

  • Fail to respect the doctrine of separation of powers;

  • Breach the principle of sub judice; and

  • Reflect a lack of proper understanding of the importance to our democracy of the independence of the judiciary from the political arms of government.

The newspaper and the three ministers narrowly escaped contempt by apologising for their comments criticising the judiciary in the midst of two major terrorism trials.

Given the fact that the contempt charge of scandalising the court was front and centre in the debate, I reproduce here my 2008 article from the Pacific Journalism Review explaining that charge, its origins, and recent application.


Pearson, M. (2008, April). Scandalising media freedom: Resurrection of an ancient contempt. Pacific Journalism Review, 14(1), 64-78.

Abstract

The ancient charge of “scandalising the court” (publications aiming at lowering the authority of the court) has had a resurgence in Australia over the past decade, at the very time judges and magistrates have developed an inclination to sue for defamation. The combined effect is to send a warning to media organisations to take care when criticising judicial officers or the judicial process, particularly if that involves implying some improper motive on the part of a judge or magistrate. In New Zealand there have been some isolated but significant threats and cases, particularly in the volatile area of family law. This paper reviews some recent Australian and New Zealand cases where a charge of scandalising the court has been either threatened or enforced and considers the implications for freedom of media expression in a new era of anti-terrorism when important questions are being asked about the fairness of justice processes.

The form of contempt of court known as ‘scandalising the court’ – defined as ‘any act done or writing published calculated to bring the court or a judge of the court into contempt or to lower his authority’ (R v. Gray, 1900) – has long been used by small African and Pacific Island states as a mechanism for silencing media criticism of the judicial process. (See, for example, Attorney-General v. Namoa, 2000; and Chaudhary v Attorney-General, 1999; where it was used recently in Tonga and Fiji). In Canada the offence has been found incompatible with that country’s Charter of Rights and Freedoms, in the United Kingdom it has not been prosecuted successfully against the media since 1931 and in the United States it does not exist at all (Weisenhaus, 2007, pp. 74-75). Sadly, it has been revitalised in Australia over the past decade at the very time members of the judiciary have begun to sue for defamation, presenting a dual affront to media freedom. It has also been used in a notable case in New Zealand and threatened in another. This is despite the fact that the legislature in New Zealand and the High Court in Australia have made moves to enshrine freedom of communication, in New Zealand with a Bill of Rights and in Australia within a series of decisions through the 1990s guaranteeing free speech on governmental and political matters. This paper considers briefly the background to scandalising contempt before reviewing the key cases in the field and considering the resulting implications for judicial critique in the media.

Background to scandalising the court

One of the most famous examples of scandalising the court was the attack in the Birmingham Daily Argus upon Crown Court Justice Darling at the turn of the last century. Editor Howard Alexander Gray was convicted of contempt for his tirade against the good justice, describing him as an “impudent little man in horse-hair, a microcosm of conceit and empty-headedness” (R. v. Gray, 1900).

The term ‘scandalising’ was described in the Australian High Court in 1935 as applying to:

publications which tend to detract from the authority and influence of judicial determinations, publications calculated to impair the confidence of the people in the Court’s judgments because the matter published aims at lowering the authority of the Court as a whole or that of its judges and excites misgivings as to the integrity, propriety and impartiality brought to the exercise of the judicial office

(R. v. Dunbabin; Ex parte Williams, 1935, p. 442).

This type of contempt can be committed by publishing material scandalising the courts or judges by abusing them in scurrilous terms, alleging they are corrupt or lack integrity, or that they have bowed to outside influences in reaching their decisions (Pearson, 2007, p. 109). Historically, the courts have been tolerant of reasonable criticism. Lord Atkin summed up the approach with this quote in 1936: ‘Justice is not a cloistered virtue; she must be allowed to suffer the scrutiny and respectful, though outspoken, comments of ordinary men’ (Ambard v. Attorney-General of Trinidad and Tobago, p. 335). This statement reinforced the fact that in Britain the offence was considered to have become obsolete in 1899, as Butler and Rodrick note (2004, p. 282). But, they continue:

This declaration turned out to be premature. The offence remains extant in England, although it has been described as quiescent, as there have been no convictions for scandalising contempt for almost 70 years. In Australia there is no doubt that the offence continues to exist. In fact, prosecutions are relatively common.

As this paper sets out to establish, scandalising charges have become even more common in recent years, a disturbing development for media freedom.

The two best-known cases in this area in Australia in the late 20th century were called the ‘BLF cases’, as both involved officials of the militant union, the Builders’ Labourers Federation — Jack Mundey and Norm Gallagher — a decade apart. In each case, the accused had made comments (picked up by the media) implying that judges had bowed to union pressure in reaching their decisions. The first, Attorney-General (NSW) v. Mundey (1972), occurred during the heat of the anti-apartheid protests against South Africa in the early 1970s. Members of the Builders’ Labourers Federation had sawn off the goalposts at the Sydney Cricket Ground in the prelude to a rugby Test match between Australia and South Africa’s Springboks. After their trials, a union official, Jack Mundey, told the media the judge should have allowed evidence of broader political material in their defence, such as United Nations documentation on South Africa’s race policies. Mundey claimed there had been a miscarriage of justice and that the judge was a racist. Mundey was charged with contempt for these comments, but the charges were dismissed in the Supreme Court because Mundey’s comments about the judge being a racist needed to be considered in the broader context of his comments about racism throughout Australian society. The court ruled that Mundey would have been in contempt if he had implied that the judge had been motivated by some racist bias against the accused in reaching his decision.

The second BLF case, Gallagher v. Durack (1983), a decade later, had a different result. There, Builders’ Labourers Federation federal secretary Norm Gallagher won a Federal Court appeal against one contempt charge, but his comments about the judicial process landed him in contempt on a new charge of scandalising the court. Gallagher told the media that industrial action by his union members had exerted enough pressure to force the court to reverse the decision to jail him over the first contempt charge. He told one television channel: ‘the rank and file of the union … has shown such fine support of the officials of the union and I believe that by their actions in demonstrating in walking off jobs … I believe that has been the main reason for the court changing its mind’ (Gallagher v. Durack, 1983, p. 239). The Federal Court held that the statement was contemptuous and sentenced Gallagher to three months’ jail. (The court justified the jail sentence on the basis that Gallagher had boasted that if he had been fined the union would pay it for him.) The decision was appealed to the High Court, which upheld the contempt conviction. The court said the whole area of scandalising involved balancing the principle of free speech against the need to maintain public confidence in the judicial system. Gallagher’s insinuation that the Federal Court had bowed to outside pressure in reaching its decision was calculated to undermine public confidence in the Federal Court. Justice Murphy dissented, saying the case raised important principles of both free speech and justice.

In a more recent case, the Anissa Pty Ltd v. Simon Harry Parsons on application of the Prothonotary of the Supreme Court of Victoria, (1999, at para. 19), Justice Cummins of the Supreme Court of Victoria summed up the three basic principles of contempt by scandalising the court:

First, proceeding for contempt of court is not and must not be in diminution of free speech. Second, proceeding for contempt of court is to preserve the administration of justice. Third, proceeding for contempt of court is not to protect the individual person of the judge.

A turning point in the law of scandalising was reached with one of the Australian High Court’s famous free speech decisions in 1992 — Nationwide News Pty Ltd v. Wills. There, a newspaper group challenged the federal government’s power to legislate against criticism of the Industrial Relations Commission or its members. The High Court held there was an implied constitutional right to criticise important public institutions and that this legislation infringed that right. However, the court also ruled that the crime of scandalising the court was not obsolete and that two defences applied to it: truth and fair comment (Chesterman 2000: 68). (In other words, it would be a defence to a charge of scandalising the court if you could prove that the substance of your criticisms was true or that your criticisms were made in good faith, were honestly held, fairly conducted and did not imply improper motives on the part of the judiciary.)

In Nationwide News Pty Ltd v. Wills, Mason CJ described scandalising as a ‘well recognised form of criminal contempt’ (at para 21) but suggested there was no contempt at common law ‘if all that the defendant does is to exercise his or her ordinary right to criticise, in good faith, the conduct of the court or the judge’ (at para 21). He stated the judiciary should be open to criticism and cited US Supreme Court Justice Hugo Black stating in Bridges v. California in 1941:

The assumption that respect for the judiciary can be won by
shielding judges from published criticism wrongly appraises the
character of American public opinion. … an enforced silence, however
limited, solely in the name of preserving the dignity of the bench,
would probably engender resentment, suspicion, and contempt much more
than it would enhance respect (pp. 270-271).

Burrows and Cheer (2005, pp. 384-387) offer six danger zones for scandalising the court:

  • Extravagant and scurrilous language;
  • Vendettas against judges;
  • Criticism based on inaccuracies;
  • Accusations of bias or impartiality on the part of the judiciary;
  • Suggestions judges are susceptible to pressure; and
  • The social conditions of the times.

The key recent New Zealand case of scandalising the court, Solicitor-General for NZ v. Smith (2004), also raised issues of free expression in relation to that country’s Bill of Rights Act. The case was explained well by Cheer (2004). The High Court found MP Nick Smith had made several inflammatory media statements about a custody dispute before the Family Court which undermined public confidence in the court and had the potential to interfere with the administration of justice by placing public pressure upon the court. As Burrows and Cheer (2005, p. 386) noted, ‘whichever way the Family Court judge decided the case, the public perception would be affected by seeing the pressure that had been so publicly applied’. It also convicted TV3 and Radio NZ of the same charge and found the freedom expression provisions of section 14 of the Bill of Rights did not offer protection against a charge of scandalising the court. Justices Wild and MacKenzie stated:

We do not accept that the offence of scandalising the Court cannot be justified as a reasonable limitation upon freedom of expression… The rights guaranteed by the BORA [Bill of Rights Act] depend upon the rule of law, the upholding of which is the function of the Courts. Courts can only effectively discharge that function if they command the authority and respect of the public. A limit upon conduct which undermines that authority and respect is thus not only commensurate with the rights and freedoms contained in the BORA, but is ultimately necessary to ensure that they are upheld. (Solicitor-General for NZ v. Smith, 2004, p. 568, cited in Burrows and Cheer, 2005, p. 384).

Thus, in both countries, despite the legislature and the highest courts enshrining free expression about politics and government, the courts have decided this ancient punishment should still be available to the judiciary.

 

The resurgence of scandalising the court

Over the past 10 years in Australia and New Zealand there have been several charges or threats of scandalising the court involving the media in a variety of ways, all containing extreme statements about the judiciary. These include:

  • Re South Australian Telecasters Limited (1998). The Family Court of Australia stopped Channel Seven in Adelaide from broadcasting a current affairs story about a custody battle between the natural parents of two children and their foster mother. As well as identification issues related to the dispute taking place in a small semi-rural town, and the risk of sub judice contempt related to the upcoming custody hearing, Chief Justice Nicholson expressed concern about the potential for scandalising the court. He said the report risked bringing the court into contempt and lowering its authority.
  • Alice in Wonderland case (2001). As Burrows and Cheer (2005, p. 387) report, an Environment Court judge asked counsel for argument over whether a contempt by scandalising had been committed when a local body politician criticised an Environment Court decision as ‘Alice in Wonderland’ in an issued statement. He also called upon landowners to state their disapproval to the judge. The matter was eventually resolved with an apology where the politician withdrew the comments.
  • Hoser & Kotabi Pty Ltd v. The Queen (2003). The author of two books about police corruption in Victoria was fined $3000 and his publishing company fined $2000 for making malicious and baseless allegations of bias and impropriety against two County Court judges who had tried earlier cases involving the author. A defence that the statements were fair comment made in good faith failed.
  • Bell v. Umina Beach Bowling Club Ltd (No 2) (2003). Directors of a New South Wales bowls club were disgruntled that their suspension of a fellow director had been ruled void by NSW Chief Judge in Equity Justice Young. The Central Coast Herald wrote a report of the decision, ending with the sentence: ‘Two of the club directors indicated an appeal against Justice Young who they accused of bias.’ The judge warned the comment was a contempt by scandalising, but handled it with a warning. Justice Young said: ‘Of course there is a wide range of legitimate criticism that can be made of courts and their decisions. However a statement to a newspaper of wide circulation that the only reason the spokesman lost was because the judge was biased goes beyond legitimate criticism, weakens the authority of the court in the eyes of the public and is a contempt.’
  • Website case (2003). A New Zealand-based web site listed 14 judges it was purportedly investigating for ‘corruption, incompetence and suspect character’ and threatened to release further information proving these allegations. Burrows and Cheer (2005, p. 385) report that the publication prompted a letter from the Solicitor-General and the material was subsequently removed from the site.
  • Attorney-General for State of Queensland v. Colin Lovitt QC (2003). Barrister Colin Lovitt was so frustrated with a Queensland magistrate’s ruling in a high-profile case, he turned to journalists covering the hearing and declared: ‘This bloke’s a complete cretin. Surely they can’t all be like this.’ The comments were reported and journalists testified they had heard him. Queensland Supreme Court Justice Richard Chesterman fined him $10000, saying the statement constituted both ‘scurrilous abuse and an attack upon the authority of the court’.
  • Mills & Ors v. Townsville City Council & Anor (No. 2) (2003). Planning and Environment Court Judge Clive Wall considered charging three Townsville councillors with contempt by scandalising when they were quoted criticising his decision to reject their approval of a nursing home development. One accused him of making decisions on design and aesthetics and another suggested the judge had ‘usurped the role of council’. Mayor Tony Mooney was quoted as saying: ‘Those appointed to the bench are not appointed by divine intervention [and] they don’t always get it right.’ Judge Wall decided the comments did not amount to contempt by scandalising because they could not be said to be of a character calculated to interfere with the administration of justice or to undermine the public confidence in the proper functioning of the Courts’. ‘Courts should not rush to be overly critical of criticism, even discourteous, wrong and mistaken criticism, as the present is’, he said.
  • Solicitor-General v. Smith (2004). MP Nick Smith was fined $5000, TV3 $25,000 and Radio New Zealand $5000 by the New Zealand High Court over comments he made about a Family Court custody case which were broadcast on the television and radio stations. The comments were inaccurate, applied pressure on the court, undermined confidence in the judicial process and had the potential to interfere with the administration of justice, the court held.
  • DPP v. Francis & Anor (No. 2) (2006). Veteran Adelaide broadcaster Bob Francis was given a nine week suspended jail sentence and fined $20,000 over a 2005 program in which he criticised a magistrate for considering granting bail to a man accused of possessing child pornography. (Magistrate Gary Gumpl was obliged under legislation to hear a bail application.) Francis told his audience: ‘Oh, smash the judge’s face in.’ The magistrate also settled out of court for a reported $110,000 defamation payout (McGarry 2006).
  • Environment Protection Authority v. Pannowitz (2006). Steepleton Pty Ltd and its director Kenneth Pannowitz were convicted and fined by the Environment Protection Authority in New South Wales for unlawful transport and disposal of waste. Part of their sentence was an order to place an advertisement in the Newcastle Herald newspaper with stipulated wording announcing their conviction. The director changed the notice in various ways and added the sentence ‘This matter has been referred by Steepleton to ICAC for further investigation’. Land and Environment Court Justice Lloyd found the suggestion that a corruption body was being called upon to investigate the court had ‘an inherent tendency to scandalise the court’. He also ruled Pannowitz had interfered with the course of justice by changing the size, position and wording of the notice.

 

Family Court criticism

Family law cases can be particularly volatile and the Family Court in both countries has been subject to harsh criticism by both litigants and the media, some of which have led to scandalising contempt charges as noted above in the Re South Australian Telecasters Limited (1998) and Solicitor-General v. Smith (2004). Other scandalising charges have been pursued against Family Court litigants without involving the media. Disaffected fathers who have lost custody of their children have often been scathing in their criticism of the court. As Lane (2000, p. 14) reported, the Family Court brought scandalising charges against four of its strident critics who protested with placards and leaflets outside its building in Melbourne in 1998, but the cases fell over when a judge threw out the case against the first, ‘PT’. In New Zealand, such individuals have faced other charges. For example, Rowan (2007) reports that the founder of the HandsOnEqualParent Trust, Jim Baily, was charged with disorderly conduct over his protest against the Family Court by driving a van with a loudspeaker around the streets of Tauranga. The charges were withdrawn.

Heads of the Family Court in both countries took public stances in 2006 to address such critics. New Zealand’s Principal Family Court Judge Peter Boshier said the media’s reportage of men’s groups’ gripes about the court’s alleged secrecy, biases and unfair processes was itself often biased and undertaken without reporters actually attending the court proceedings. “The reporting of the father’s groups’ protests shows that the more strident and extreme the claims made the more likely the media will give them publicity – and uncritical publicity,” he said (Boshier, 2006, p.5). In Australia, the Chief Justice of the Family Court, Diana Bryant, went public to counter criticism that her court was biased by announcing the court would be collecting statistics including those showing the percentage of arrangements involving or excluding fathers (Porter, 2006, p. 6).

When magistrates and judges sue

Complicating the scandalising cases is the fact that members of the judiciary have become more inclined to sue for defamation in recent years, as evidenced by the award of $246,500 in damages in 2002 to Victorian Deputy Magistrate Jelena Popovic over a Herald Sun article by Andrew Bolt (Popovic v Herald & Weekly Times Ltd and Anor, 2002), and the 2005 victory over the Sydney Morning Herald by NSW magistrate Pat O’Shane (John Fairfax Publications Pty Ltd v O’Shane, 2005). Burrows and Cheer (2005, p. 383 footnote 29) also record a New Zealand newspaper report of a judge settling a defamation action against a media organisation. The propensity of the judiciary to sue means media organisations potentially face both criminal and civil responses to their harsh critique of the administration of justice in the form of a scandalising contempt charge and a defamation suit.

Conclusion and directions

All this is not to say that judges in either country jump at the opportunity to charge media organisations with contempt by scandalising. Media outlets do indeed publish quite harsh criticisms of the judiciary and get away with it. For example, the editor of Sydney’s Daily Telegraph, David Penberthy, almost challenged the courts to charge him with contempt when he reported that District Court Judge Ian Dodd had developed quite a reputation for going to sleep while presiding over cases. Penberthy started his piece as follows:

This might constitute a contempt of court. But we thought we’d run it anyway, as there’s every chance the judge in question will be curled up under his judicial sombrero, oblivious to any slur against his name. (Penberthy, 2005, p. 21).

While Penberthy went ahead and published his humorous exposé of the sleeping judge, the point for this article is more that he was ‘chilled’ enough by the contempt laws to verbalise the risk in his very first sentence. An ancient law hangs like a guillotine over fair and open reportage in the modern era.

Twenty years ago the Australian Law Reform Commission (1987) criticised the law of scandalising on two main grounds and recommended its common law version be abolished. The first criticism was that there was no need to prove the accused intended to impair public confidence in the administration of justice; it was enough that the accused published the remarks intentionally (para 414). Secondly, there was no formal defence of justification available to the accused; the truth or falsity of the published remarks was irrelevant (para 415). Of course, as noted above, the High Court indeed decided truth would be a defence to scandalising in Nationwide News Pty Ltd v. Wills (1992).

While the Commission recommended scandalising be abolished from the common law, it suggested it be replaced by a limited offence which prohibited the publication of an allegation imputing misconduct to a judge if it was likely to cause serious harm to the judge’s reputation in his or her official capacity (para 460). Liability would lie with each officer of the media organisation in a position to exercise control over the publication (para 261) and the initial maker of the scandalising statement if he or she knew, or should have known, the allegation would be published (para 264). The Commission also recommended the defence of justification (if the accused proved the allegation was true or believed it was true on reasonable grounds) and the defence of it being made as part of a fair and accurate report of court or parliament (para 460). The offence would be tried by jury except when all concerned had consented to have it tried summarily by a magistrate (para 476, 479).

The Commission’s recommendations, the free speech cases in the Australian High Court in the early 1990s, the higher public profile of the judiciary and the fact that more judicial officers were pursuing defamation actions to defend their reputations all raised hopes that the authorities would not pursue charges of scandalising the court. Such hopes were reinforced in 2005 when Federal Court Justice Ronald Sackville delivered the 13th Lucinda Lecture at Monash University (Sackville, 2005). Sackville asked ‘How fragile are the courts?’ and traced the history of criticism of the courts, including a critique of scandalising contempt. He supported the ALRC by suggesting courts should be able to resort to some powers ‘in the rare cases where verbal attacks pose a genuine threat to the standing of the judiciary’. He also suggested that, like politicians and other public officials, judges should be able to sue for defamation where their reputations have been unfairly damaged. He concluded:

But the independence of the judiciary does not justify conferring on judges greater protection than those representatives or officials enjoy. It is to be hoped that the High Court will interpret the scope of the implied freedom of communication more broadly than recent decisions might suggest.  If the High Court does not do so, there is a strong case for legislation to bring the principles governing criticism of the Australian judiciary into line with those of other liberal democracies (Sackville, 2005, p. 24).

Despite Justice Sackville’s refreshing perspective reinforcing the recommendations of the ALRC 20 years ago, it seems that in recent years such charges have had somewhat of a resurgence in Australia and, to a lesser extent, in New Zealand.

Whether or not this has resulted in a debilitating ‘chill’ upon media critique of the courts is a moot point, but journalists certainly need to ensure that any criticism of the judiciary and the legal system is carefully phrased and measured so that it does not unfairly imply any wrongdoing that might erode public confidence. Journalists should note that, while some of the media organisations mentioned above escaped contempt charges when they reported the contemptuous statements of others (such as disgruntled fathers on the steps of the Family Court) it is open to the authorities to prosecute both the individuals who make contemptuous comments (at a press conference, for example) and the media outlet that reported the comments, as they did in Solicitor-General v. Smith (2004) in New Zealand. Litaba (2003) noted that while scandalising the court should not be used to protect individual judges against reputational attacks, there were numerous examples where judges seemed to have ‘stood on their personal dignity’. Further, Litaba questioned whether under the existing law truth as a defence applied, despite the High Court’s statements on the matter in Nationwide News Pty Ltd v. Wills (1992), a disturbing possibility given that part of the democratic process should surely be the right to make legitimate, well founded, criticism of the judicial process.

The slim risk of being charged with scandalising the court should not prevent journalists partaking in fair, well-reasoned criticism of the administration of justice. It is only when the criticism is personal, scurrilous abuse of a judge, which brings the judicial system into disrepute, or when it implies some improper motive on the part of the judiciary that it is more likely to overstep the mark. Nevertheless, all in the media would argue that judges and the judicial process should be open to such criticism. This has been even more the case in recent years when judges themselves have spoken about their decisions in public forums. Family Court and High Court justices, particularly, have been vocal on broader policy issues affecting the workings of the justice system. Many welcome such a public profile of the judiciary, but argue that judges cannot adopt such a stance and later hide behind the protections of ancient laws, such as scandalising the court, to punish those who have publicly disagreed with them.

The need for unshackled critique is even more pressing in an era when anti-terrorism laws leave so many court processes open to criticism and when the sentencing of criminals is such a heated political topic.

Media groups, such as Australia’s Right to Know lobby, and the press councils in both countries, should press for greater clarity in the law of scandalising. It would have the advantage of allowing reasoned public criticism of judges and the court system and sound investigative reporting of suspicious judicial practices without fear of reprisal from an irate judge wielding summary powers. Media freedom should not be held to ransom by impudent little men in horsehair, microcosms of conceit and empty-headedness nor, for that matter, by snoring wigs curled up under their judicial sombreros.

 

References

Australian Law Reform Commission (ALRC). (1987). Report no. 35 — contempt,

Australian Government Publishing Service, Canberra. [Electronic version.]

Boshier, P. (2006, August 9). Fair deal for Family Court. Dominion Post, p. 5.

Burrows, J. and & Cheer, U. (2005). Media law in New Zealand. (5th ed.). South Melbourne: Oxford University Press.

Butler, D. & Rodrick, S. (2004). Australian media law. (2nd ed). Sydney: Thomson Law Book Company.

Chesterman, M. (2000) Freedom of speech in Australian law: A delicate plant. Aldershot: Ashgate Dartmouth.

Cheer, U. (2004). New Zealand media law update. Recent developments – defamation, censorship and contempt. Media and Arts Law Review. 9 (3): 237-246.

Lane, B. (2000, March 8). Street protester beats judges at own game. The Australian. p. 14.

Litaba, O. (2003). Does the ‘offence’ of contempt by scandalising the court have a valid place in the law of modern day Australia? [Electronic version]. DeakinLRev 6.

McGarry, A. (2006, 3 August) Jail for Bob the broadcaster? The Australian,

  1. 14.

Pearson, M. (2007). The journalist’s guide to media law. Dealing with legal and ethical issues. (3rd ed.). Allen & Unwin, Sydney.

Porter, L. (2006, December 24). Family Court fights back over bias claims. Sunday Age. P. 6.

Rowan, J. (2007, January 26). Family Court protester avoids conviction. New Zealand Herald.

Sackville, Justice R. (2005). How fragile are the courts? Freedom of speech and criticism of the judiciary. 13th Lucinda Lecture. Monash University, 29 August 2005. Retrieved March 10, 2008, from http://www.wbde.org/documents/2005_Aug_29_Justice_Sackvill_%20Re_Criticism_of_Judiciary.pdf

Weisenhaus, D. (2007). Hong Kong media law. A guide for journalists and media professionals. Hong Kong: HK University Press.

 

Cases cited

Ambard v. Attorney-General of Trinidad and Tobago [1936] AC 322.

Anissa Pty Ltd v. Simon Harry Parsons on application of the Prothonotary of the Supreme Court of Victoria [1999] VSC 430. Retrieved March 10, 2008 from www.austlii.edu.au//cgi-bin/disp.pl/au/cases/vic/VSC/1999/430.html.

Attorney-General v. Namoa [2000] TOSC 13 Retrieved March 10, 2008 from http://www.paclii.org/to/cases/TOSC/2000/13.html.

Attorney-General NSW v. Mundey [1972] 2 NSWLR 887.

Attorney-General for State of Queensland v. Colin Lovitt QC [2003] QSC 279. Retrieved March 10, 2008 from http://www.austlii.edu.au/au/cases/qld/QSC/2003/279.html.

Bell v. Umina Beach Bowling Club Ltd (No 2) [2003] NSWSC

846 Retrieved March 10, 2008 from www.austlii.edu.au/au/cases/nsw/supreme_ct/2003/846.html.

Bridges v. California (1941) 314 US 252.

Chaudhary v Attorney-General [1999] FJCA 23, [17] (Fiji Court of Appeal). Retrieved March 10, 2008 from http://www.paclii.org/fj/cases/FJCA/1999/27.html.

DPP v. Francis & Anor (No. 2) [2006] SASC 261 Retrieved March 10, 2008 from http://www.austlii.edu.au/cgi-bin/sinodisp/au/cases/sa/SASC/2006/261.html.

Environment Protection Authority v. Pannowitz [2006] NSWLEC 219 Retrieved March 10, 2008 from http://www.austlii.edu.au/au/cases/nsw/NSWLEC/2006/219.html.

Gallagher v. Durack (1983) 152 CLR 238.

Hoser & Kotabi Pty Ltd v. The Queen (ex parte The Attorney-General for the State of Victoria); The Queen (ex parte The Attorney-General for the State of Victoria) v. Hoser & Kotabi Pty Ltd [2003] VSCA 194 Retrieved March 10, 2008 from http://www.austlii.edu.au/cgi-bin/disp.pl/au/cases/vic/VSCA/2003/194.html.

John Fairfax Publications Pty Ltd v O’Shane [2005] NSWCA 164. Retrieved March 10, 2008 from http://www.austlii.edu.au/cgi-bin/sinodisp/au/cases/nsw/NSWCA/2005/164.html.

Mills & Ors v. Townsville City Council & Anor (No. 2) [2003] QPEC 18 Retrieved March 10, 2008 from http://www.austlii.edu.au/au/cases/qld/QPEC/2003/18.html.

Nationwide News Pty Ltd v. Wills (1992) 177 CLR 1.

Popovic v Herald & Weekly Times Ltd and Anor [2002] VSC 174 Retrieved March 10, 2008 from http://www.austlii.edu.au/cgi-bin/sinodisp/au/cases/vic/VICSC/2002/174.html.

Re South Australian Telecasters Limited (Publication Injunction) [1998] FamCA 117 Retrieved March 10, 2008 from www.austlii.edu.au/cgi-bin/disp.pl/au/cases/cth/family_ct/1998/117.html

R v. Dunbabin; Ex parte Williams (1935) 53 CLR 419.

R v. Gray [1900] 2 QB 36.

Solicitor-General v. Smith [2004] 2 NZLR 540.

 

© Mark Pearson 2008 & 2017

Disclaimer: While I write about media law and ethics, nothing here should be construed as legal advice. I am an academic, not a lawyer. My only advice is that you consult a lawyer before taking any legal risks.

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Reporting Islam in the spotlight at #AEJMC16

By MARK PEARSON

My sabbatical semester travels now have me in Minneapolis for the annual convention of the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication – #AEJMC16.

Visiting the Hindu temple in Minneapolis with the Religion and Media interest group from AEJMC with my Mindful Journalism co-author Shelton Gunaratne (front row, second from left).

Visiting the Hindu temple in Minneapolis with the Religion and Media interest group from AEJMC with my Mindful Journalism co-author Shelton Gunaratne (front row, second from left). [Photo: Julie Pearson]

I’m presenting a paper titled “Perspectives of journalists, educators, trainers and experts on news media reporting of Islam and Muslim communities in Australia and New Zealand”, showcasing research from our @ReportingIslam project, written with colleagues Jacqui Ewart (@jacquiewart) and Guy Healy.

Our paper uses data from an Australian study to ascertain issues associated with news media coverage of Islam and Muslims from the perspectives of journalists, journalism educators and media trainers. We draw on data from interviews with 37 journalists, editors, educators, media trainers, Muslim community leaders and other experts located in Australia and New Zealand to explore their understandings of the ways stories about Islam and Muslims are reported and why.

We’re looking forward to the feedback from colleagues after two interesting sessions on similar topics yesterday.

On Wednesday we visited Muslim, Hindu and Christian places of worship in Minnesota with the Media and Religion interest group from the conference (pictured left).

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Disclaimer: While I write about media law and ethics, nothing here should be construed as legal advice. I am an academic, not a lawyer. My only advice is that you consult a lawyer before taking any legal risks.

© Mark Pearson 2016

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Gearing up for a stimulating and mindful #wjec16

By MARK PEARSON

Many of the leading lights in journalism education internationally gather in Auckland next week for the fourth World Journalism Education Congress at AUT Auckland.

WJECWebsiteScreenshotFor me, it will be a busy start to a sabbatical semester and I am looking forward to chairing a session, being respondent for another, a panellist in a 21st century ethics discussion, and presenting two conference papers with @ReportingIslam project colleague Jacqui Ewart (@jacquiewart).

Interested? Here are the session descriptions and abstracts. See the full program here.

WJEC preconference of the Journalism Education and Research Association of Australia (JERAA), AUT Pacific Media Centre (PMC) and Media Educators Pacific (MEP), Wednesday, 13 July 2016, 4-5.30pm

A Research-driven Approach to Developing a Best Practice Checklist for Journalists Reporting upon Islam and Muslims

Prof Mark Pearson and Prof Jacqui Ewart (Griffith University, Australia)

This paper explains the processes undertaken to research, develop and trial a checklist for journalists or journalism students for the ethical and mindful reporting of stories involving Islam as a religion or Muslim people. The presenters outline an innovative approach to such a task where the international literature in the field and follow-up research informed the creation of an extended checklist which was then refined according to the perceived needs and priorities of the journalists and students who were presented with it.

This paper presents the methodology and results of the study implementing exactly that approach, which might inform future approaches to the development of such guidelines across a broad range of reporting topics. The study formed part of a major Australian Government funded project involving the creation of research-based resources on the mindful reporting of Islam and Muslim people.

Academic research papers stemming from international studies on reporting Islam and journalism ethics were searched. We also undertook 29 interviews with journalists, journalism educators, journalism students and academics with expertise in the media and Islam in Australia and New Zealand. Topics covered included best and poor practice and curricular and pedagogical approaches to educating journalists for more mindful reporting. We analysed this data – previous studies and the interview transcripts – as a crucial part of the development of an extended list of 30 questions journalists and editors might ask themselves when covering a story related to Islam or Muslim people. Journalists, educators and journalism students (n = 123) attending workshops throughout 2015 were presented with the 30 questions and were asked to nominate the 10 they felt were most important (in no particular order), using a variation of “forced choice” testing in survey methodology (Frederick, 2004, pp. 397-398). The responses were then ranked in order of importance into a “Top Ten” checklist and subsequently built into the project’s resources and curricula which were in turn trialled with journalists, journalism educators and students at several sites in four Australian states and in Canberra. This paper explains that the approach has at least three benefits – the pedagogical advantage of the embedded learning happening while the participants perform the ranking; the reassurance for the teaching resource developers that the selected guidelines are considered the most important by the target groups; and the enhanced credibility of the resulting guidelines for those subsequently using them. The paper details the methodological and educational research underpinning the approach and presents the resulting refined checklist.

Frederick, R. (2004). Forced-choice testing. In M. Lewis-Beck, A. Bryman, & T. Liao (Eds.), Encyclopedia of social science research methods. (pp. 397-398). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

WJEC Conference, July 14, 11am-12.30pm

Panel 2: 21st century ethical issues in journalism
WG404
This panel explores the ethics of journalism in an environment where journalistic authority is diminished and new relationships with news publics are being sought. The speakers, drawing on a range of philosophical positions, will explore arguments around journalistic independence, engagement with the public good, transparency and sincerity. In doing so, the panel members will trace some of the major fault lines in contemporary journalism ethics around truth-telling and accountability and assess ways through which journalists can morally justify their work.
Chair: Donald Matheson, Canterbury University (New Zealand)
Panelists:
Mark Pearson, Griffith University (Australia)
Cherian George, Hong Kong Baptist University (Hong Kong)
Linda Steiner, University of Maryland (United States)
Respondent: Stephen Ward, University of British Columbia/University of Wisconsin-Madison (Canada)
WJEC Conference, July 16, 11-12.30pm
Paper session: 21st Century Ethical Issues in Journalism 3
WG607

Eliciting Best Practice in Reporting Islam: Case studies from Australia

Mark Pearson and Jacqui Ewart, Griffith University

Much is known about the poor practices adopted by some news media outlets in their coverage of Islam and Muslims, but relatively little research has been conducted into what might constitute best practice in this important area of reportage (Pintak & Franklin, 2013; Rupar, 2012). In this presentation we discuss two case studies from Australia, involving a range of approaches to reporting stories involving Islam and Muslims. These case studies were part of the first stage of a projected three-stage project aimed at developing best practice resources to encourage the more mindful reporting of Islam and Muslims. The first case study includes a set of examples of news media reporting of proposed and existing mosques and prayer rooms. We chose this particular case study because the international literature revealed that mosque proposals and construction projects frequently became the focus of negative news media coverage (DeHansas and Pieri 2011; Dunn, 2001; Alleivi, 2009). Key journalistic lessons to emerge from the examination of the articles about coverage of planned, proposed or existing mosques included the need to: pay attention to the type of language used in news reports; focus on using non-inflammatory language; ensure a range of voices are heard in reports; avoid giving attention to extreme points of view held by a minority; ensure images are in context; verify the veracity of protestors’ claims; assess the proportion of protesting residents in the particular community; embed ongoing coverage of issues affecting Muslim communities into the news schedule; and consider the broader social and current affairs context when covering stories about Islam and Muslims.

The second case study focuses on two approaches to national media coverage of radicalisation and association of Muslim people with violence and terrorism because the international body of research highlights the tendency of news media to make connections between, or conflate, these issues (Altheide, 2007; Murphy et al, 2015; Pintak and Franklin, 2013; Rupar, 2012).

There were some similarities and some differences between the approaches of the two national media outlets (newspaper and public television) to essentially the same topic of radicalisation of Australian Muslim men at approximately the same point of history. Both used a range of sources including some experts, mainstream Muslims and radicalised militants and/or their friends or associates; demonstrated a lack of detail on the sponsorship of their key expert sources; and simplified and sensationalised the issue in key aspects. Differences included: a generalised headline damaging the credibility of the newspaper’s overall coverage and the television program’s use of a moment of conflict in its promo; the newspaper’s use of a single expert source and the television program’s use of several; the newspaper’s profile of a single Muslim suburban woman for its ‘typical’ or ‘mainstream’ Muslim perspective as opposed to the television program’s inclusion of a range of diverse Muslim voices from different ethnic groups and locations; and the newspaper’s delay in offering Muslim community leaders’ perspectives until its follow-up coverage the next day as distinct from the television program including several such voices.

Using the international literature about best practice in reporting Islam and Muslims and the findings from our analysis of the case studies, we draw upon the research, our case studies and selected data from a series of interviews with experts to present a schema of 30 best practice questions journalists might reflect upon when reporting Islam and Muslims.

References

Allievi, S. (2009). ‘Conflicts Over Mosques in Europe: Policy Issues and Trends–NEF Initiative on Religion and Democracy in Europe’, Network of European Foundations.

Altheide, D.L. (2007). The Mass Media and Terrorism, Discourse and Communication, 1(3): 287-308.

De Hanas, D.N., and Pieri, Z.P. (2011). Olympic Proportions: The Expanding Scalar Politics of the London ‘Olympics Mega-Mosque’, Sociology 45(5): 798-814.

Dunn, K. M. (2001), Representations of Islam in the politics of mosque development in Sydney. Tijdschrift voor economische en sociale geografie, 92: 291–308.

Murphy, K., Cherney, A., and Barkworth, J., (2015), forthcoming). Avoiding Community Backlash in the fight against terrorism: Research Report.

Pintak, Lawrence and Franklin, Stephen (eds) (2013). Islam for Journalists; A Primer on Covering Muslim Communities in America. [Digital newsbook]. US Social Science Research Council; Edward R Murrow College of Communication, Washington State University. Available: https://www.rjionline.org/downloads/islam-for-journalists

Rupar, V. (2012). Getting the facts right: Reporting ethnicity and religion. A study of media coverage of ethnicity and religion in Denmark, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Italy, Lithuania, Slovakia and the United Kingdom.[Project Report]. Brussels: International Federation of Journalists. Available: http://ethicaljournalisminitiative.org/en/contents/eji-study-2012

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RELATED:

More on the Reporting Islam Project:

Griffith University Red Couch interview: Spotlight on Reporting Islam

ALSO RELATED:

Related to my ethics panel presentation, our recent book Mindful Journalism and News Ethics in the Digital Era: A Buddhist Approach (Shelton Gunaratne, Mark Pearson and Sugath Senarath eds; Routledge, NY, 2015)  explored the possibilities of applying mindfulness techniques to journalism practice.

Interested? You can listen to my 10 minute interview on Radio National’s Media Report here.

Screen Shot 2015-09-04 at 9.46.24 am

See also my account of the basic principles of mindful journalism in the journal Ethical Space: The International Journal of Communication Ethics, and the editors have been kind enough to make that article available for free viewing as a feature item on their website here. You might also want to explore some of their other fascinating articles on media ethics here and perhaps subscribe.

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Disclaimer: While I write about media law and ethics, nothing here should be construed as legal advice. I am an academic, not a lawyer. My only advice is that you consult a lawyer before taking any legal risks.

© Mark Pearson 2016

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Mindful journalism – Bhutanese style

[This review was first published in Media International Australia, May 2016; 159 (1) as ‘Book Review: The Dragon’s Voice: How Modern Media Found Bhutan’]

By MARK PEARSON

Few of us would pass up the chance to spend a year working in the Kingdom of Bhutan – mythologized in media coverage as a Shangri-La nestled in the Himalayas with its own Gross National Happiness Index.

Australian journalist and academic Bunty Avieson seized that opportunity and travelled (with her partner and young daughter) to work on a fledgling private newspaper in that tiny nation soon after its Fourth King had licensed it as part of a modernisation initiative.

The Dragon’s Voice – How Modern Media Found Bhutan (available here) is Avieson’s memoir of that experience. It is an entertaining work of popular non-fiction reflecting the author’s writing acumen and sense of narrative as a former editor of Woman’s Day and editorial director of New Idea. Yet it also has a depth of scholarship drawing upon Avieson’s more recent work as an academic researcher and journalism educator.

The Dragon’s Voice: How Modern Media Found Bhutan

Author: Bunty Avieson

University of Queensland Press, 2015, 240pp

ISBN: 978 0 7022 5357 7

DragonsVoiceCoverThe people of Bhutan are predominantly Buddhist and this navigation of opposites in life’s course is what Buddhists call the ‘Middle Path’. There are numerous examples throughout the book of Avieson and her Bhutanese newspaper colleagues endeavouring to find such a middle way between extremes.

Avieson takes up the challenge of portraying the deeper layers of a country whose image is over-simplified by its international media framing as a quaint oddity whose citizens are happily trapped in a bygone era on top of the world.

She does not shy away from important issues of censorship (including self-censorship), crime, poverty, natural disasters, domestic violence and the toll of the rapid pace of modernization.

Several threads run through the work, but one of the most important is the paradox centred upon the birth of a newspaper in Bhutan; coinciding with the death of printed newspapers in much of the developed world.

It is a particularly Buddhist and Bhutanese approach to journalism adopted by the Observer’s leadership team – mindful journalism in action. (See the reviewer’s own work on mindful journalism here.)

Avieson explains the newspaper’s owners Tenzin Wangdi and Phuntsho Wangmo asked some of the nation’s wisest and most ethical intellectuals to help develop guiding principles for the newspaper.

The resulting mission statement began with a Buddhist assertion “that all things exist in interdependence is an age-old wisdom”, before vowing to “uphold and strengthen the values and principles that bind this small but great kingdom together”. It continued: “We are a voice with a conscience, and our efforts are aimed at enriching people’s lives through unbiased content intended to inform, educate and entertain.”

Avieson proceeds to chronicle the successes gained and the challenges faced by the newspaper’s journalists and other staff as they set about redefining reporting about Bhutanese people in a Bhutanese style. She details the very practical problems of distribution to remote regions and the inexperience of staff, along with bizarre news topics including one about a town where men believe their wives have crooked vaginas and another about a ghost that lives in a rock.

The newspaper relied largely on government advertising, creating a fear of retaliation over critical stories, a situation not unique to Bhutan. Buddhist principles even influenced the types of advertisements the owners will carry. For example, the Observer would not run ads for cars because “it would be unkind to make villagers desire something they can’t afford”.

Occasionally the reader gets an insight into the profound influence Avieson had on the newspaper in her short time there – drawing upon her many years of experience as a magazine editor with layout, design, photography commissioning and selection and in the production of themed editions and special magazines.

While her modest approach is in keeping with the Buddhist theme, the reader is left wondering how involved Avieson became in the day to day journalism of the operation.

Successful memoirs need to do much more than document a passage of the author’s life. Avieson has achieved this in The Dragon’s Voice. It is purportedly about a year in Bhutan but in the telling it prompts important questions about the media, society and life.

We are left pondering how we would do journalism differently if we had the chance to reinvent it, and then it dawns upon us that that is exactly what journalists in the developed world are trying to do right now. There is much they can learn from Avieson’s account of her time with the Bhutan Observer.

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** Listen to author Bunty Avieson’s interview about the book with ABC Radio National Media Report host Richard Aedy here.

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Disclaimer: While I write about media law and ethics, nothing here should be construed as legal advice. I am an academic, not a lawyer. My only advice is that you consult a lawyer before taking any legal risks.

© Mark Pearson 2016

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Queensland judicial committee recommends some filming of proceedings and a new court information officer

By MARK PEARSON

A Supreme Court of Queensland committee has recommended a pilot program for the broadcasting of some sentencing remarks and appeal hearings and the appointment of a court information officer.

QldElectronicPubsReportApril2016The Electronic Publication of Court Proceedings: Report – April 2016 was released this month, the result of eight months of deliberations by five Supreme Court justices (chaired by Justice Margaret McMurdo, President of the Court of Appeal), with input from a further two District Court judges.

The report followed the release of an Issues Paper on the topic in June 2015 and the consideration of public submissions, including one from yours truly, which I detailed in an earlier blog.

The latest report reviews practices in other Australian jurisdictions and internationally. It stems from media requests to film the sentencing remarks in the trial of Brett Peter Cowan for the murder of school boy Daniel Morcombe.

No standard procedures existed in Queensland to film sentencing remarks and the court was rare among Australian jurisdictions in that it had no designated information officer to assist in making arrangements. The delay deemed necessary to make suitable arrangements was one of the reasons that the application to film the judge’s sentencing remarks was refused.

As a result of the report’s findings, the courts will develop a pilot program for broadcasting of sentencing remarks and appeal hearings.

The committee noted  that most respondents were concerned about the risk that recording and broadcasting witnesses and others in court would compromise the administration of justice.

As with similar reviews in other countries, the report does not favour broadcasting of witnesses’ evidence. However, the option will remain open for the judge in a particular case to allow the evidence of witnesses to be broadcast, with special consideration given to the position of victims and vulnerable witnesses.

The pilot program will require the development of suitable Practice Directions, logistical arrangements and guidelines to assist the judges and the media. Guidelines will address matters such as the exclusion of certain categories of cases and the location and field of view of cameras.

The decision on whether to allow the recording of sentencing remarks will remain the decision of the presiding judge in each case.

The report also recommends additional ways to better inform and educate the public, including:

  • improved public and media access to court decisions, case summaries and documents to allow fair and accurate reporting; and
  • the appointment of a Court Information Officer to assist the Supreme Court and the District Court in better informing and educating the public about the courts and the justice system.

When appointed, the officer will be responsible for the development of guidelines for the recording and publication of court proceedings, paving the way for the pilot program to start.

My own submission called for the installation of webcams in all courtrooms to allow as much public access to court proceedings as possible so that citizens could ‘virtually’ visit a courtroom just as easily as they might attend physically.

It suggested that, just as all citizens might wander randomly into a public court in session in the Supreme Court building, citizens should be able to tune in online to those same proceedings from the comfort and convenience of a remote location.

My own view is that recording more generally in society has become ubiquitous and that its potential to impact on judges and potential witnesses would be minimal given a. the extent to which people realise their words and behaviour are now being recorded in all walks of life; and b. the fact that wholesale livestreaming of all courts would be accommodated as a basic procedure – just an accepted facet of what is done there.

My submission featured these six hallmarks:

  1. Install inexpensive webcams in all courtrooms showing only the judge in the frame.
  2. Livestream all courtrooms using this single camera angle to a designated court website where citizens can access any courtroom at any time.
  3. Feature the kind of alert light found in radio studios positioned prominently inside and outside the courtroom to light with the sign “Court open and broadcasting”.
  4. Install a similar light and sign at the bench so the judge can control whether the recording is on or off (ie, whether the court is open or closed) and personnel are advised accordingly.
  5. Deal with mainstream media requests for special permission to film proceedings on a case by case basis, with the presiding judge determining the conditions attached to any permissions.
  6. Restrictions: As detailed above, my own view is that there are measures available to the courts to address any misreporting or sensationalised reporting based on the livestreamed material. However, if the court were concerned at the potential for the selective recording and rebroadcasting of any of the material it could feature an on-screen warning “© Supreme Court of Queensland: Not to be recorded or rebroadcast without the permission of the presiding judge”.

In short, this simple and relatively inexpensive solution would dispense with the need for editing because the livestreaming control would rest simply with the judge’s decision on whether to close or open the court for the complete trial (or for a given segment).

It would allow a mechanism for justice to be truly ‘open’ – both in the physical courtroom and in the virtual one – with all the ensuing public benefits of education and allowing justice to be seen to be done.

The committee gave my suggestion due consideration but rejected it on the basis of expense and for tipping the scales too far in favour of open justice over a fair trial and the due administration of justice. The report stated:

“Professor Pearson and others have advocated the introduction of a system whereby proceedings which are held in open court are recorded on webcams that are installed in all courtrooms and live-streamed. A variation on this is for the court to have its own dedicated internet channel for live-streaming.

It may be argued that, with new and relatively inexpensive technology to record and live-stream proceedings, all proceedings should be live-streamed. This simply would enable members of the public to view what would be seen by them if they exercised their right to attend a proceeding in open court. It may be relatively inexpensive to install webcams in most courtrooms showing the judge and to live-stream the images from this single camera angle to a designated court website which citizens can access. However, such a system would not regulate what was to be broadcast. Guidelines and procedures, and judges and court staff in individual cases, would need to address the evidence of witnesses, including vulnerable witnesses, which may be affected by the knowledge that what they say is being broadcast to the world. Any new system would need to control the transmission of certain evidence to the general public, including the identity of victims and children whose identification is subject to statutory prohibitions. It also would need to control the broadcasting of the horrendous details of certain crimes. Monitoring the recording and transmission of evidence under a system which live-streamed all proceedings in all courtrooms would entail a very substantial cost to the community.

Many cases in the superior courts are of no real interest to the general public. Few members of the general public attend them, the media do not report them and it seems unlikely that more than a few members of the general public would wish to view them if they were live-streamed. The resources required to establish a system to record and live-stream all proceedings and to apply appropriate restrictions on what is communicated to the general public cannot be justified in the light of anticipated demand.”

© Mark Pearson 2016

Disclaimer: While I write about media law and ethics, nothing here should be construed as legal advice. I am an academic, not a lawyer. My only advice is that you consult a lawyer before taking any legal risks.

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Ethical lessons from the 60 Minutes abduction saga

By MARK PEARSON

International readers of this blog might be unaware of the national debate in Australia over the involvement of an Australian 60 Minutes television current affairs crew in last month’s abduction of two children in Lebanon who were the subject of a parental custody dispute.

The Australian mother of the child – Sally Faulkner – and the reporter Tara Brown and her three crew were jailed for two weeks along with the alleged abduction contractor Adam Whittington who remained in jail seeking bail this week.

The Nine Entertainment Company announced an investigation into the circumstances surrounding its flagship current affairs program’s involvement in the failed abduction attempt.

Following that announcement (April 21, 2016) ABC Gold Coast’s Matt Webber interviewed me about the ethical dimensions of the saga.

Here is the recording of that interview. [Transcription below by Virginia Leighton-Jackson].

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Interview with ABC Gold Coast’s Matt Webber

Matt Webber: Let’s concentrate on the Nine Network for now. What are the main questions it needs to answer?

Mark Pearson (@journlaw): Well Matt, I think in your introduction you started to hit upon the main questions, and I think they’re questions that need [answering] – I mean hindsight is a wonderful thing and it’s very easy for an academic like me to be looking at this in hindsight and saying all the things that should have been done. But the sorts of questions that you were just asking [are relevant] – Who is involved? Who are the stakeholders? Who are those who might get hurt through such a story? The first thing Channel Nine should be doing, I believe, is setting up accountable systems where those questions are actually asked before stories are embarked upon. And that involves…

MW: Are we naive to think that wouldn’t happen?

MP: I don’t think so; I think people would get carried away, and particularly in a highly emotionally charged story like a custody battle it’s very easy to hear one party’s side of the story. Another issue here is of course is the simple fact of obeying laws. Now, there seems to be like a cultural view that has come through this story that going to another place, the ‘other’, a place like Lebanon, excuses journalists from doing what would be absolutely illegal for them to be doing here in Australia. I mean only a couple of years ago one of the leading news stories was a custody battle over children in Queensland where the Italian father had won custody of the children, and the family – the grandparents and the mother – were fighting the order of the court that the children be taken back to Italy. What if that had happened in that case? Just say the order had gone the other way and the father and an Italian TV crew was here and the children were grabbed on the streets of the Gold Coast and taken, and the plan was to take them to a boat at Southport, and somehow the TV crew had helped fund the abduction. Can people imagine what would have happened there? So what Channel Nine needs to be asking is what is going on there culturally in their mindset about these sorts of stories to think that it’s okay to do that in Lebanon, but it’s not okay to do it in Australia. What’s their view of another country’s legal system that allows that to happen?

Now there’s still a lot of this story to come out, facts that we will hear about – you just played a part of the father’s version of whether or not people are being paid or whatever. The truth of all of that will eventually come out. But I think what Channel Nine needs to do is actually follow the privacy guidelines of ACMA, the Broadcasting Authority, but follow them to the letter. They are not obligatory, but they need to actually look at them; where it says that children are more vulnerable, and the privacy of children is something that really needs close scrutiny. And in public interest – what they might call public interest doesn’t outweigh the rights of children to be considered. A story like this has ripple effects across a whole range of stakeholders, and they need to actually have a formalised process which goes through considering the potential impact on all of those involved – including in this case, the news crew.

MW: Indeed. Mark Pearson, a professor in journalism at Griffith University. Often ‘journalistic ethics’ is a pair of words that is tossed around fairly liberally. The Code of Ethics that journalists need to adhere to, are they sufficiently aware of it? Or are they far too ignorant of it, either wilfully or otherwise?

MP: Well, journalists do know about the Code of Ethics, and most journalists these days have been through some journalism program, like a degree or whatever and have learned about the Code of Ethics. But the big problem with the Australian journalists’ Code of Ethics, and most others, is that there is a whopping ‘get-out’ clause. What it says is that all of these are things that should be strived for, but if the public interest, or if the story is of such public concern then that excuses journalists, outweighing those ethical considerations. But it does make specific reference to chequebook journalism – now I’m not saying that’s happened in this case, is it chequebook journalism to help fund an operation? Well, that’s something we’ll be able to discuss once more facts come out. But also things like dealing with children and the vulnerable, and thinking of those potential implications.

So I think it’s more than just journalists’ ethics: it’s a basic moral code that most humans think twice before they do something that is related to or can impact badly on children’s lives. And so if anything comes of this, I would hope that people take special care, and newsrooms implement practices that ring extra alarm bells if there are going to be children involved in any story.

MW: What about those who will argue that look, commercial television is, particularly commercial TV Current Affairs, is a wild and woolly old world, boundaries will always be pushed; that’s the nature of capitalism in many regards. This shouldn’t come as any surprise that this sort of thing is happening. What do you say to those types?

MP: Well if there is a commercial or a capitalism argument for breaching ethics I think you can counter that with another equally commercial or capitalist argument: and that is the only thing that journalism has left these days, compared with its internet rivals, compared with the jungle of news breakers out there who might be citizen journalists or people doing it simply for a commercial imperative, the only thing that we have remaining to sell news is credibility and respect in the community. And that comes through having an ethical code that journalists adhere to. I think 60 Minutes has lost a lot of credibility out of this, and I think Channel Nine will be reviewing that because there is a commercial loss involved when you’ve overstepped the mark and you lose respect in the eyes of the community. 60 Minutes used to be a wonderful news brand, and Channel Nine will be asking what’s happened to that in the wake of this episode.

MW: Interesting observations, Mark Pearson, I really appreciate your time. Thank you.

MP: Thanks Matt

MW: Mark Pearson, Professor of Journalism and Social Media at Griffith University’s School of Humanities (Languages, and Social Science).

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RELATED:

Our book Mindful Journalism and News Ethics in the Digital Era: A Buddhist Approach (Shelton Gunaratne, Mark Pearson and Sugath Senarath eds; Routledge, NY, 2015)  explored the possibilities of applying mindfulness techniques to journalism practice.

Interested? You can listen to my 10 minute interview on Radio National’s Media Report here.

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See also my account of the basic principles of mindful journalism in the journal Ethical Space: The International Journal of Communication Ethics, and the editors have been kind enough to make that article available for free viewing as a feature item on their website here. You might also want to explore some of their other fascinating articles on media ethics here and perhaps subscribe.

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Disclaimer: While I write about media law and ethics, nothing here should be construed as legal advice. I am an academic, not a lawyer. My only advice is that you consult a lawyer before taking any legal risks.

© Mark Pearson 2016

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