Former broadcaster Derryn Hinch is no stranger to the laws of contempt – after all he has breached them enough times.
While all publishers support a free flow of information and have a natural aversion to suppression orders, it is difficult to defend someone who has displayed a flagrant disregard to laws intended to guarantee a fair trial.
Hinch is a serial offender. He was sentenced to five months’ home detention in 2011 for breaching suppression orders by naming two sex offenders. He avoided jail sentence because of illness. In the 1980s, he served 12 days in prison for similar contempt charges.
Now Hinch is facing the possibility of a second prison term after he was found guilty of a charge of sub judice contempt for publishing tweets and entries on his blog during court proceedings concerning Adrian Ernest Bradley, the man who pleaded guilty of the murder of Melbourne woman, Jill Meagher.
In doing so, Hinch breached a court suppression order. Hinch published on the same day as the suppression order was made, but Justice Stephen Kaye said the media commentator should have known he could not publish a reference to Bayley’s prior offences.
However, Hinch’s case goes to the heart of a dichotomy in terms of publishing which needs to be rectified. While there is a legal demand on mainstream media to work within the law, and not publish or post material that is the subject of a suppression order or could constitute criminal contempt, the lines are less clear – Hinch’s conviction aside – in terms of social media.
After the arrest of Bradley, Meagher’s widower had to publically appeal to Victorians not to post comments on Facebook or Twitter that could lead to his trial being aborted. Police requested Facebook to take down a number of posts, but it took the best part of a week before it took down the offending content.
This led to Victorian Attorney-General Robert Clark to call for new national laws that will reduce the risk of social media placing criminal trials in jeopardy. However, the solution is startlingly simple.
It is absurd to think that offending material can appear on social media site, but it is crime if the same material is published by mainstream mastheads. If traditional media is responsible for the publication of consumer-led content it publishes, surely the same requirement should be applied to social media.