Trial by media: judges to share views on coverage

7 February 2014

Sensationalised media reporting of court decisions can undermine public confidence in the legal system and can unfairly tarnish judges, says a spokesperson for the National Judicial College of Australia (NJCA).

The NJCA and the ANU College of Law are hosting a conference this weekend on all aspects of judicial sentencing, including the media's reporting of decisions.

The conference is a chance for lawyers, legal experts and judges from around the world to discuss issues around sentencing, and will include appearances by ACT Chief Justice Helen Murrell and keynote speaker Professor Andrew Ashworth from All Souls College in Oxford.

Professor Ashworth is regarded as one of the world's most eminent criminal law academics.

"Sentencing is almost always in the headlines for one reason or another, and particularly more recently with the so-called one-punch laws and similar legislation throughout the country," NJCA Program Development Manager Anne O'Connell says.

"So there are always issues to talk about. On this occasion, the aspect of sentencing we're looking at is a historical/philosophical one, but also looking at the media as purveyors of information about sentences and where that places them in relation to the courts."

Ms O'Connell says from the point of view of judges, some media outlets often sensationalise sentencing decisions and often don't explore the reasons why decisions are made.

"If the public actually had more accurate information and less sensationalist information, they may see that what's being done is consistent with the judiciary's duty to uphold the law," she says.

"One of the biggest problems with the media doing this kind of thing - and I'd like to point out that not all of them do it - is the public trust and confidence in the judicial system is undermined. Judges are also not really in a position to answer back."

Sensationalised stories often make TV programs and help to sell newspapers, she says.

"Now until the Television programs and newspapers are willing to not emphasise the sensationalist aspects of decisions, we won't get anywhere."

Mark Nolan, Associate Dean (Education) in the ANU College of Law, says politicians can be driven to make hasty decisions about sentencing laws when media focuses heavily on alleged prevalence or risks of crime outbreaks.

However, he says journalists should not be punished for publishing the facts.

"The problem arises when the facts they select are incomplete and designed to inflame public opinion, in many cases to suit political agendas and those of media proprietors, as well as create a 'problem' and then campaign for its resolution in the form of legislation which is ill considered and hastily enacted," he says.

A full outline of the Sentencing Conference is available on the ANU College of Law and National Judicial College of Australia websites.