Griffith University Skeptics and Freethinkers

Archive for the ‘Human Rights’ Category

So who’s up for some skeptical activism at the Woodford Folk Festival?

In GUSSF Events!, Helping our community., Human Rights on December 13, 2011 at 8:07 PM

 A call to action for all Queensland Skeptics:

Sourced from the Skeptimite blog

As you have probably heard, Meryl Dorey of AVN infamy is booked to speak at the Woodford Folk Festival on Dec 29 and 30.  If you are not aware of the situation check out the @drunkenmadman blog and wiki for the facts and links.

What to do?

Step one:
Email, tweet and phone everyone involved to let them know your concerns. The wiki has links with contact details.

Comment on blogs and web articles. The Mamamia article by Peter Bowditch is a great place to start, with more info and comments.

Also spread the word to your twitter followers, facebook friends and so on.

Step two:
Get to Woodford. We need skeptics on site to record (if legally possible) Meryls talk, take notes and per haps hand out fliers.  I hope that someone very capable will be able to ask Meryl some tough questions in the Q&A.

I am thinking perhaps handing out fliers while wearing t-shirts that say “Vaccines Save Lives” or similar might be the way to go. Skeptics can then answer questions from the public in a calm and rational manner.

At this stage, I hope to be there for both days. I am happy to car pool from Brisbane northside, although I only have a two seater.

All feedback, comments and suggestions welcome.

Please get in touch @skeptimite or phil.kent at







In Discrimination, Equality, GUSSF Events!, Helping our community., Human Rights, Leo Igwe, Modern Day Witchcraft on August 13, 2011 at 9:28 AM

Can science aid the battle against superstition?

Can rational thinking stop children being burnt as witches?

 Speaker: Leo Igwe

 Leo Igwe is the founder of the Nigerian Humanist Movement, the Nigerian Skeptics Society and former director of the Centre for Inquiry/Nigeria. He works for the International Humanist and Ethical Union as its director in West and Southern Africa. He also represents the IHEU at the African Commission on Human and People’s Rights in Banjul, Gambia. He has written numerous articles on human rights, humanism, scepticism and free thought in Africa.

Leo has been arrested and beaten by the Nigerian police and local gangs as a result of his campaigns against superstition, injustices and fanaticism. Recently he spent much of his time rescuing alleged witch children in the south of the country. He will talk about the consequences of challenging such beliefs. He will also discuss the role that scientific and critical thinking can play in improving the life of the average African and the future of the continent.

On 23 August Leo will visit the Gold Coast during a speaking tour sponsored by Australian Skeptics Inc. The Gold Coast event will be held at Gold Coast Little Theatre, 21a Scarborough Street, Southport starting at 7.30 pm.

After the presentation, supper will be served in the GCLT green room. This will be a great opportunity to ask Leo questions and share ideas with other members of the audience.

For catering purposes, bookings are essential.

Contact –

Lilian Derrick: phone 5593 2776 or email:

Frank Culell: phone 5562 1869 or email:


Gold Coast Little Theatre, 21a Scarborough St, Southport

Tuesday 23 August 2011 at 7.30 pm.


Everyone welcome. Donation of $5 includes supper after the presentation.

Bookings essential

Promotional Flyer

How will Gloria Thomas celebrate World Homeopathy Awareness Week?

In 10:23, Helping our community., Homeopathy Awareness Week, Homepathy, Human Rights, Modern Day Witchcraft on April 11, 2011 at 8:27 AM

[Originally posted April 2010]

A subheading in The Australian in September 2009 read:

“BABY Gloria Thomas died an excruciating death after weeks of agony caused by the virulent eczema that eroded her skin, covered her body in wounds and retarded her development.”

The parents of this poor girl refused to seek professional medical care, instead relying solely on homeopathic treatments. This was despite the child’s clearly deteriorating condition and what must have been unimaginable suffering over a period of 5 months. Gloria Thomas died on the 8th of May, 2002 at 9 and half months of age, weighing just 2kg more than her birth weight, her hair having turned grey, her body malnourished, and her skin cracked open.[1]

Unfortunately the preventable death of this infant is far from an isolated case with website detailing a further 437 cases of harm due to the reliance on homeopathic concoctions.[2]

So what is Homeopathy and what do these treatments consist of?
According to the Australasian College of Natural Therapies website:
Homoeopathy is a system of medicine that works by administering patients a dilute dose of a substance that in a crude form would cause symptoms similar to that which the patient is experiencing. Homeopathic medicines often contain active ingredients diluted to a beyond a measurable level.[3]

Unfortunately for proponents of homeopathy and their customers the measurable amount is zero and the end product is nothing more than whatever liquid was used to dilute the original substance. In other words there is no active ingredient in homeopathic products at all, yet they are sold in pharmacies and supermarkets around Australia and the world.

Type homeopathy into a search engine and you will find countless sites promoting so called treatments as an alternative to conventional medicine; supplements and the like for all manner of ailments, most often in what can be considered by their users as authoritative health websites. These web sites often contain links to other claims that are scientifically dubious and often either untested or refuted in controlled conditions.

A 2002 position statement on Complimentary and Alternative medicine presented to the White House by the National Council Against Health Fraud[4] contains the following excerpt from a New England Journal of Medicine editorial:

“There cannot be two kinds of medicine –conventional and alternative. There is only Medicine that has been adequately tested and medicine that has not, medicine that works and medicine that may or may not work. Once a treatment has been tested rigorously, it no longer matters whether it was considered alternative at the outset. If it is found to be reasonably safe and effective, it will be accepted. But assertions, speculation and testimonials do not substitute for evidence. Alternative treatments should be subject to scientific testing no less rigorous than that required for conventional treatments.”[5]

While Australia’s Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA), the body responsible for the regulation of such treatments, advises us that:

“complimentary medicines may only carry indications and claims for the symptomatic relief of conditions (other than serious disease, disorders, or conditions), health maintenance, health enhancement and risk reduction.”

However as the case of Gloria Thomas shows us, even relatively mild conditions if left untreated long enough can be fatal. Even if the homeopathic preparations themselves are not harmful, their use in substitution of proven and scientifically validated treatments can have the direst of consequences.

As prominent Melbourne pharmacy and drug information consultant Ron Batagol is quoted as saying:

“You need to be quite careful that you’re not excluding the urgent need for medical treatment, because coughs and colds can lead to severe bronchitis, asthma, pneumonia and you really need to be looking after these things medically”

Listing with the Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA), is conditional on evidence that

“…must be sufficient to substantiate that the indications and claims are true, valid and not misleading.”

Yet the scientific literature is littered with the results of many years research on the effectiveness and validity of homeopathic treatments and they are overwhelmingly inconsistent in terms of quality, yet consistent with one result, that homeopathic treatments do nothing more than elicit what is referred to as the ‘placebo effect’ in respondents.

Our minds can anticipate expected effects of perceived treatments, creating the often self fulfilling expectation that the respondent is feeling better, regardless of the effectiveness of treatment. It is an expected condition of medical trials that this placebo effect be accounted for and eliminated as a source of potential bias in a study in order to differentiate actual curative effects from this expectation driven subjective response. Unfortunately outside of laboratory conditions and particularly for the non-medically trained public, a placebo response can be seen as a positive health result, but in actuality the root cause of their complaint has not been addressed and may grow worse if effective treatment is not administered.

In 1993 the Council of the Faculty of Homeopathy, London issuing a statement advising

“The Council of the Faculty of Homeopathy, London, strongly supports the conventional vaccination program and has stated that vaccination should be carried out in the normal way, using the conventional tested and proved vaccines, in the absence of medical contraindications.”

Closer to home, the Executive Director of the Australian Natural Therapies Association is on public record as having said that no properly qualified natural therapist would recommend homeopathic ‘immunisation’ as an alternative to conventional immunisation. Yet despite these assertions, UK science written Simon Singh has described the findings of of Edzard Ernst and Katja Schmidt at Exeter University who conducted a survey among UK homeopaths. Emails were sent by the pair to168 homeopaths in which they effectively pretended to be a mother asking for advice about whether or not to vaccinate her one-year-old child against measles, mumps and rubella (MMR). Singh advises that of the 77 respondents, only two advised the mother to immunize.

In 2009, Dr Ken Harvey, a physician at La Trobe University’s school of public health complained to the Therapeutic Goods Administration’s complaints panel about a group called Homeopathy Plus! for allegedly promoting immunisations for a range of diseases when there is no scientific evidence to back it up.[12]

When asked what he expected to come of the complaint, Dr Harvey said he was not confident the TGA would take any meaningful action was quoted as saying

“It’s a complaint-driven system that doesn’t do anything,”.

Action was taken against the offending websites however in early 2010 which as a consequence of the TGA finding numerous breaches of the advertising code, the investigating Panel ruled for Homeopathy Plus! and to remove the misleading material and issue the following retraction on their websites which is to remain for 90 days.

In spite of this finding by the peak regulatory body in Australia, the websites in question still contain the same misinformation that led to this ruling in the first place and the retraction seen above is not to be found.

Just as the situation seems hopeless however, in February 2010, The House of Commons Science and Technology Committee of the United Kingdom, having taken submissions from scientists and homeopaths to determine if homeopathy was effective, and therefore deserving of government funding, released their findings. They advised:

“In our view, the systematic reviews and meta-analyses conclusively demonstrate that
homeopathic products perform no better than placebos”.

“We do not doubt that homeopathy makes some patients feel better. However, patient satisfaction can occur through a placebo effect… When doctors prescribe placebos, they risk damaging the trust that exists between them and their patients”. [17]

The report advises the UK government that the National Health Service should cease funding homeopathy as evidence shows homeopathy doesn’t work and that explanations for why homeopathy works are “scientifically implausible.”[18]

Just weeks prior to this announcement, The New Zealand Skeptics, in conjunction with 10:23, Skeptics in the Pub, The Australian Skeptics and others globally, held a mass overdose of homeopathic concoctions. Predictably all survived the stunt, however in response to the widely televised event New Zealand Council of Homeopaths spokesperson Mary Glaisyer admitted publicly that

“there’s not one molecule of the original substance remaining”

in homeopathic treatments, a fact not commonly shared by the homeopathic establishment.

Public pressure and less than flattering media coverage of the real evidence of homeopathic treatments is on the rise and if maintained, could very well lead to homeopathy going the way of phrenology, relegated to the dustbin of science, or at best a medical curiosity that our grandchildren will read about and laugh. However as Dr Ken Harvey pointed out, the TGA here in Australia is a complaint driven process. With that in mind I encourage everyone who reads this to explore the literature, speak to your Doctors and health professionals, and please forward a complaint to this”>link:

The ball is rolling and I believe that this push against non-evidence based treatments can be brought into the public consciousness in such a way that little Gloria Thomas death may help other children and adults alike avoid her fate. The following are just some links to Australian media outlets that could be great public forums for this issue to gain the exposure it needs, the list provided here is by no means exhaustive and local newspapers are always hungry for stories:

and this great site for contact details of local members of parliament:

If you are not within Australia then simply utilising your preferred search engine will lead you to applicable media in your locale. If we all tell our friends, neighbours, relatives, local media and local, state and federal politicians and anyone who’ll listen, the word will get out. I can’t help but think, wouldn’t it be great if this was the last Homeopathy Awareness Week.

Thank you for taking the time to read this and as always please feel free to provide feedback.

Jayson D Cooke


To make a complaint to the TGA






[5] Angell M, Kassirer J. Alternative Medicine—The risks of untested and unregulated remedies. New England Journal of Medicine 339:839-841, 1998.















Body Brilliant Chiropractic: #1 at Manipulation?

In Helping our community., Human Rights, Modern Day Witchcraft, Science on December 4, 2010 at 1:02 AM

In April 2008 best selling UK author Dr Simon Singh wrote an opinion piece in the Guardian newspaper regarding chiropractic treatments that contained the following paragraph:

“The British Chiropractic Association claims that their members can help treat children with colic, sleeping and feeding problems, frequent ear infections, asthma and prolonged crying, even though there is not a jot of evidence. This organisation is the respectable face of the chiropractic profession and yet it happily promotes bogus treatments.”

The British Chiropractic Association (BCA) promptly threatened to sue Dr Singh personally, claiming he had defamed their reputation. Despite the Guardian Newspaper offering an opportunity for the BCA to author a 500 word response to be published in The Guardian, allowing the BCA to present its evidence in conjunction with a clarification in the “Corrections and Clarifications” column, these offers were rejected by the BCA and legal action commenced. The resulting 2 year ordeal ended abruptly when the BCA served a Notice of Discontinuance on April 15, 2010 bringing an end to any claim of libel.

Perhaps it’s nothing more than coincidence that the very next month the General Chiropractic Council (GCC), a UK-wide statutory body with regulatory powers, published a position statement related to subluxation (the ironic backbone of many contentious chiropractic claims) which read:

“The chiropractic vertebral subluxation complex is an historical concept but it remains a theoretical model. It is not supported by any clinical research evidence that would allow claims to be made that it is the cause of disease or health concerns.”

In October this year New Zealand medical researchers Professor Shaun Holt and Andrew Gilbey issued a strong warning against taking children to chiropractors for any reason.

In regards to spinal manipulation in infants and children, for conditions ranging from ear infections, colic and asthma to ADHD and even cancer, Professor Holt was quoted as saying

“There is no plausible explanation why high-velocity manipulation of the spine can help children with these medical conditions, it is an extraordinary claim”

“Given that this is a multibillion dollar industry, the lack of good research that has been undertaken is staggering. There is also evidence that many chiropractors advise against routine childhood immunizations, which is irresponsible.”

Andrew Gilbey also relayed concerns that

“there are some serious safety concerns related to the unnecessary use of x-rays and the manipulation of childrens’ spines and so we advise parents to instead consult their family doctor who has been trained to recognize and treat a wide range of medical problems. In Canada, an undercover researcher reported that 4 out of 5 chiropractors found serious problems with the spine of a child and said that these required urgent chiropractic treatment, whereas an experienced pediatric orthopedic surgeon who also examined the girl found her to be perfectly healthy.”

Most likely my awareness of these and many other causes for concern regarding Chiropractic had kept me from any contact with it.

Until yesterday afternoon that is.

Picking my daughter up from childcare I couldn’t help but notice glossy leaflets in each family pigeon hole. Usually this is where receipts of payment, birthday invitations and Centre announcements are left for parents. What caught my eye this time however was a beautifully prepared 4 page newsletter style pamphlet entitled




produced by Body Brilliant Chiropractic. I then read:

“Ear Infections, Colic, Reflux, ADHD, Postural Imbalances and so much more can be caused from Subluxations.”

The manager of the Centre happened to be nearby. She explained the unprecedented appearance of such material resulted from a favor to a former child fitness program employee who had just started at Body Brilliant Chiropractic. The staff had allowed this person to promote her new employers claims based on trust alone and had yet to look over the claims made in the document, a surprisingly easy mistake to make and one I don’t in any way begrudge them for (particularly as I’ve been assured it won’t happen again).

As soon as I voiced my concerns regarding the claims made, staff were instructed to remove the leaflets pending investigation.

We then went through the document together and noted that claims were also made that “Vertebral Subluxations” are at minimum correlated with Asthma, Wheezing and a host of other illnesses not related to the back, let alone spine.None of the numerous facts and figures put forward were referenced in any way, and there appeared to both of us to be a general tone of mistrust aimed at the medical establishment. I said I’d follow up the claims with a little research and bring in what I found the next day and thanked the management team for acting so promptly to remove the offending material.

I’ve since provided to the management and staff a fairly comprehensive summary of articles and peer-reviewed studies outlining controversy within the chiropractic community over the reality of “Subluxations” (described in the leaflet as the source of a range of illnesses at least 5 times) the ineffectiveness of pediatric chiropractic “treatments”, and the potential risks involved in undertaking such treatments. I have also filed a complaint with the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission(ACCC) via their tremendously useful SCAMWatch site, The Queensland Office of Fair Trading as well as the Therapeutic Good Administration (TGA). The Management of the Childcare Centre have assured me they will be much more vigilant in future and also advised me that they contacted the woman who had delivered the leaflets and that she was not aware of any concerns but would look into it further.

I can’t help but dwell on the fact that if those leaflets had been delivered any day of the week apart from Thursday and Friday they would have escaped my notice, and that is more than enough to compel me to act. It’s also possible that the other parents at the Centre would not have the background knowledge on the topic to be concerned about the claims made, or to have been concerned enough to alert staff to the potential for harm to our children. I was considering this and wondering how many other Child Care Centres in our region also were either purposefully or unwittingly promoting such treatments when my partner passed me the Dec/Jan issue of ‘Kids on the Coast’ magazine, a free bi-monthly publication that circulates in many if not all childcare facilities across the Gold Coast.

The inside front cover features a full page advertisement for Body Brilliant Chiropractic.
Read the rest of this entry »

The Mass Libel Reform Blog — Fight for Free Speech!

In Discrimination, Equality, GUSSF Events!, Helping our community., Human Rights, Responses to the media, Science, Superheroes, TAM Australia on November 21, 2010 at 9:06 PM

This is a message from Simon Singh:

This week is the first anniversary of the report Free Speech is Not for Sale, which highlighted the oppressive nature of English libel law. In short, the law is extremely hostile to writers, while being unreasonably friendly towards powerful corporations and individuals who want to silence critics.

The English libel law is particular dangerous for bloggers, who are generally not backed by publishers, and who can end up being sued in London regardless of where the blog was posted. The internet allows bloggers to reach a global audience, but it also allows the High Court in London to have a global reach.

You can read more about the peculiar and grossly unfair nature of English libel law at the website of the Libel Reform Campaign. You will see that the campaign is not calling for the removal of libel law, but for a libel law that is fair and which would allow writers a reasonable opportunity to express their opinion and then defend it.

The good news is that the British Government has made a commitment to draft a bill that will reform libel, but it is essential that bloggers and their readers send a strong signal to politicians so that they follow through on this promise. You can do this by joining me and over 50,000 others who have signed the libel reform petition at

Remember, you can sign the petition whatever your nationality and wherever you live. Indeed, signatories from overseas remind British politicians that the English libel law is out of step with the rest of the free world.

If you have already signed the petition, then please encourage friends, family and colleagues to sign up. Moreover, if you have your own blog, you can join hundreds of other bloggers by posting this blog on your own site. There is a real chance that bloggers could help change the most censorious libel law in the democratic world.

We must speak out to defend free speech. Please sign the petition for libel reform at

Science and Human Values

In Equality, Human Rights on November 11, 2010 at 12:15 PM

“Ethical concepts should be subject to the same scrutiny as are the concepts of science. Which means that ethical concepts are not absolute or everlasting, that they are not beyond challenge because they are held by faith, or by authority, or by the conviction that they are self-evident. It means that they must be tested by their consequences, by how they work out in practice, and if necessary modified, or reformulated or discarded.”

Jacob Bronowski. Science and Human Values. Penguin Books Ltd, Harmondsworth, 1958

The NSW Office of Liquor, Gaming and Racing revokes the anti-vaccination group AVN’s charitable status:

In Helping our community., Human Rights, Responses to the media, Science, Superheroes, TAM Australia on October 14, 2010 at 5:12 PM

Just hours ago the Australian Vaccination Network (AVN) president Meryl Dorey issued a media release advising that the New South Wales Office of Liquor, Gaming and Racing (OLGR) are revoking the AVN’s charitable status as of Wednesday, October 20th 2010.

The media statement claims to reproduce the reasons listed by the OLGR, yet curiously the reproduction seen below does not seem complete,

(a) that any fundraising appeal conducted by the holder of the authority has not been conducted in good faith for charitable purposes
The Organisation has failed to publish a disclaimer on its website as
recommended by the Health Care Complaints Commission (HCCC).
This has resulted in an unacceptable risk of potential donors to the
Organisation being misled when making a decision whether or not to
make a donation, which has led to appeals not being conducted in good

(c) that any fundraising appeal conducted by virtue of the authority has been improperly administered

The Organisation’s website is misleading in that it may lead people
making donations to believe that they are donating to a cause which
promotes vaccination whereas the Organisation adopts an anti-vaccination
position. When requested by the HCCC to publish a disclaimer on its website the Organisation failed to do so.

(f) in the public interest, the authority should be revoked.

The failure of the Organisation to comply with the HCCC recommendation resulted in the Commission publishing a Public Warning on 26 July 2010 advising that this failure “poses a risk to public health and safety”. In this circumstance it is in the public interest to not permit the Organisation to conduct fund raising appeals under the Act.

Unfortunately the full list of reasons (including those numbered b, d, and e) are not yet publicly available, but it’s not unreasonable to surmise they contain information the AVN have decided not to disclose for a reason.

It’s also not unreasonable to consider 2010 to be the most successful year for organised “skeptical activism” in history with overwhelmingly positive results.

The attention given to the AVN’s misleading, deceptive and dangerous claims and activities has been inspirational to say the least. Many the world over who share our concern for the dangers inherent in the dissemination of patently false pseudoscience, have new examples of skeptical activism at work, examples that show that there is always something we can do to help inform, educate and protect those most vulnerable, in addition to traditional skeptical activities.

Each and every one of you are heroes, candles in the dark.
From the extraordinarily brave and resilient parents of Pertussis victim Dana McCaffery, Ken McLeod and fellow Stop the AVN Group Members , Peter Bowditch, the Australian Skeptics Inc , Kylie Sturgess, Dr Rachael Dunlop, ABC journalist Steve Cannane, and here, Luke Weston and the Young Australian Skeptics, Sean the Blogonaut, Jason Brown, Mia Freedman, Dick Smith,the Skeptic Zone team, Dan Buzzard, and the many contributors and editors of the AVN Wikipedia entry.

The tremendous dangers that the misinformation and ignorance spouted by this group caused are incalculable, but without a doubt your individual and collective contributions will save lives.

Australia owes you a debt of gratitude for your hard work, persistant investigation, and determination to inform the public, media and regulatory bodies of what what the AVN is,does and stands for.

If there is anyone I have missed please do let me know and I will edit this page as soon as I’m made aware.

Jayson D Cooke

When there’s cons and scams in your neighborhood, who you gonna call? SCAMwatch!

In Helping our community., Human Rights, Responses to the media, Science on October 7, 2010 at 11:53 AM

The Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) has a great online resource aptly named SCAM Watch, providing awareness of what to look out for in terms of common scams, cons and deceptions. Their website also advises where to turn if you or someone you know falls victim to such unscrupulous trickery.

Please let the authorities know through the report a scam section of SCAMwatch. You can also lodge complaints about miracle cure advertisements with the Therapeutic Goods Administration. Many victims feel embarrassed and so do not report such activities, but remember, if you don’t report it, others will also suffer the same fate if not worse.

If you or someone you know has had contact with what may be perceived a dubious practices along these lines, let us at the Griffith Skeptics and Freethinkers know, and we’ll endeavor to do all we can to help.

Jayson D Cooke

Has the Pope been watching ‘Expelled, No Intelligence Allowed’?

In Discrimination, Equality, Helping our community., Human Rights, Responses to the media on September 17, 2010 at 12:18 PM

The BBC just released a story detailing the most recent controversy of his current tour of the United Kingdom. Fresh from yesterdays reports that Cardinal Walter Kasper, the Vatican’s leading expert on relations with the Church of England, compared the United Kingdom to the third world. When asked by German news magazine Focus, whether Christians were discriminated against in the UK, Kasper replied:

“Yes. Above all, an aggressive new atheism has spread through Britain. If, for example, you wear a cross on British Airways, you are discriminated against.”

Today’s headlines reveal that the in his opening address to the Queen, the Pope openly and clearly compares secularism to Nazism.

“Even in our own lifetime, we can recall how Britain and her leaders stood against a Nazi tyranny that wished to eradicate God from society and denied our common humanity to many, especially the Jews, who were thought unfit to live. I also recall the regime’s attitude to Christian pastors and religious who spoke the truth in love, opposed the Nazis and paid for that opposition with their lives. As we reflect on the sobering lessons of the atheist extremism of the twentieth century, let us never forget how the exclusion of God, religion and virtue from public life leads ultimately to a truncated vision of man and of society and thus to a “reductive vision of the person and his destiny”

The talk ends with the following advice;

“Today, the United Kingdom strives to be a modern and multicultural society. In this challenging enterprise, may it always maintain its respect for those traditional values and cultural expressions that more aggressive forms of secularism no longer value or even tolerate. Let it not obscure the Christian foundation that underpins its freedoms; and may that patrimony, which has always served the nation well, constantly inform the example your Government and people set before the two billion members of the Commonwealth and the great family of English-speaking nations throughout the world.
May God bless Your Majesty and all the people of your realm. Thank you. “

Lovely. So now we know the secret of how the magisterium of the church maintains it purity.
Will this act of diplomatic charity, the sharing of critiques and advice go both ways?

I doubt it.

Jayson D Cooke

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