Griffith University Skeptics and Freethinkers

How does trial by media constitute a serious risk to the due administration of justice?

In Discrimination, Equality, Helping our community., Human Rights, Responses to the media on September 8, 2010 at 5:06 PM

The curiously cautionary tale of of Theo Theophanous.

The Australian Press is no stranger to accusations of “Trial by Media” with such notable examples as Lindy Chamberlain , Geoff Clark , Schapelle Corby and Bill Darcy. But for a recent example that was able to be fully scrutinized and addressed by the Australian Press Council, it’s hard to go past the recent mistreatment of Victorian MP Theo Theophanous.

On the 14th October, 2008, The Australian’s Rick Wallace, wrote of the shock departure of Victorian Industry and Trade Minister, Theo Theophanous . Mr Thesophanous stood down the evening before citing a police investigation involving himself. At the time Mr Theophanes was not aware of the nature of the complaint made against him. A spokesman for the Victorian Police stated

“It’s not appropriate for Victoria Police to identify any individual until such time as they have been formally charged”.

Mr Theophanes had declined to answer questions, but pleaded to the media to respect his rights

“I would request that the media allow the police to conduct their inquiries in the appropriate way without unfounded speculation that could prejudice their inquiries.”

The next day 15th October, 2008,the front page of The Age ran the headline

“Woman tells of being ‘raped’ by minister; EXCLUSIVE by Carolyn Webb.

The Article detailed the emotional turmoil of the anonymous woman believed to have initiated the police investigation. The article states that Mr Theophanous’ solicitor, Jim Valos said allegations had not been put to Mr Theophanous by the police. “Mr Theophanous still remains to be interviewed by the police. Mr Theophanous maintains his complete innocence of any wrongdoing and he will strenuously defend whatever allegation is put to him.”

On the 19th of October 2008, The Sunday Age published a feature titled “Power and Persuasion” . The accompanying photograph of Mr Theophanous carried the byline

“Known in Labor circles as a powerbroker and a branchstacker, Theo Theophanous has had a colourful and controversial political career.”

The article contains what were later referred to as a number of unfavorable assertions about Mr Theophanous and his political career.

“He is accused of raping a woman inside Victoria’s Parliament building one evening in 1998, and has stepped down as minister for industry and trade, major projects and IT while the alleged incident is investigated by police. Theophanous is robustly protesting his innocence …He is portraying himself as the victim of a smear campaign, and has suggested his accuser is after money.”

On the 24 December 2008 Mr Theophanous was formally charged with rape whereupon he resigned his Government Ministry position, categorically denying the charge and stating

“I can only speculate as to why this woman has made such an untrue and malicious allegation against me, not only to the police but also publicly. I believe the truth, including the motivation of this woman and the people who have assisted her, will ultimately come out.”

On The 24th January, 2009, The Sunday Age published a feature article titled

“The accused: Theophanous tells his story” written by Melissa Fyfe. While providing Mr Theophanous an opportunity to voice his own concerns about the woman’s allegations and his political career., the article does contain the following paragraph; “A creature of vicious ALP politics, who admits to using “dirty, grubby” tactics he knew would “hurt” opponents, revenge and retribution have always been part of Theophanous’s political armoury. In advancing the cause, his cause, the ends could justify most means.”
The 24th of July,2009 saw the Headline

“Theophanous will not stand trial for rape”

printed on the front page of The Age accompanying an article by Sarah-Jane Collins. The story advises that Magistrate Peter Reardon denying the accused a case against Mr Theophanous, citing insufficient evidence for Mr Theophanous to stand trial and described the woman as an entirely unreliable witness.
Mr Theophanous since complained to the Australian Press Council in regards to the articles written by Carolyn Webb, Michael Bachelard and Melissa Fyfe claiming they could have unfairly prejudiced law enforcement and the community against him. He claimed that court proceedings revealed that the allegations reported by Carolyn Webb differed in key respects (including the date and place of the alleged rape) from an earlier version given to her by the woman. Differences that went unmentioned in her article.

The complaint alleged that Ms Webb had a pre-existing friendship with the woman, had previously visited her in Greece as well as stayed in her house. It went on to accuse Ms Webb of not corroborating the allegations with two women, one of whom was a friend of hers, who the woman told her were able to support elements of the allegations. During the committal process it emerged that the two women did not support the allegations. Mr Theophanous told the council Ms Webb had not asked him for comment, that his solicitor had to approach her to be quoted refuting the allegations on his behalf.
The Council found that Ms Webb clearly had a potential conflict of interest through her friendship with the woman, that this relationship became known to the newspaper itself as did the woman’s previous inconsistent version and the complaint was upheld.
The complaint about The Sunday Age article by Michael Bachelard was dismissed with the Council declaring they were not persuaded that the content and authorship of the article transgressed their principles in these respects.

The article, by Melissa Fyfe, despite being broadly sympathetic, was included in the complaint, particularly the before mentioned paragraph that indicates Mr Theophanous “admits to using dirty grubby tactics he knew would hurt opponents”. The Council were advised the paragraph had been quoted by the prosecutor in the committal hearing as an adverse indication of his character. The Council considered that the paragraph was unacceptable because it was not an accurate or fair paraphrasing of Mr Theophanous’ quoted remarks and went on to advise that annotations should be made to The Age website archives, especially due to the seriousness of the allegations and the unequivocal nature of their dismissal by the magistrate.

So while the courts have cleared Mr Theo Theophanous of any wrong doing, the viewpoint of public opinion will forever be slightly colored by an association with sexual assault, despite his innocence. He has lost his career, had his reputation tarnished both professionally and privately as well as had to deal with tremendous stress as a result of careless reporting.

Jayson D Cooke

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