News on Roseanne Beckett petition & Questions for NSW Government

Last week I published a story which laid out the terrible conspiracy by NSW police and Crown witnesses that led to Roseanne Beckett (Catt) spending ten years in prison for crimes she did not committ. The Crown and the NSW DPP continue to sanction that conspiracy.

On Sunday Night, Channel 7 did a short follow up on its earlier story about the case. Reporter Rahni Sadler put this proposition to Roseanne’s ex-husband Barry Catt: You put an innocent woman in jail for 10 years. You helped to put an innocent woman in jail for 10 years. Shortly afterwards (at least in the edited version) Barry Catt asks to be excused, saying that he has an answer ‘up his sleeve’. As he departs, he thrusts his fist into his hand – suggesting to the audience that he could resort to ‘biffo’. In fact, Barry Catt has assaulted many women as the NSW DPP well knows. Even at the time of her arrest, Roseanne had charged Barry with two very serious assaults. These were part heard but were simply allowed to lapse while the NSW police got on with framing Roseanne. In their introduction, Channel 7 summarised the case this way:

Roseanne had lost the best years of her life in what’s been described as a grave miscarriage of justice. But her battle is far from over: she now has to fight for compensation. Ironically Barry Catt, who has had AVO’s taken out against him by at least nine different women, did receive compensation when Roseanne was jailed that he has not had to pay back. Today Barry still claims his ex-wife is guilty, describing her as ‘Satan’ .

Also on Sunday, Mary Court who first met Roseanne as a prison visitor in 1996 and has continually campaigned for her ever since, started an online petition. The Blue Mountains Gazette reported on Mary’s fight for justice for Roseanne this week.The petition calls for compensation and a public inquiry into the case. Amongst many other issues,such an inquiry would find out who was responsible for the NSW DPP being prepared to continue to rely on the word of ex-detective Peter Thomas, who had been proved to have lied in another case. Why wasn’t he charged with perjury? You can find the petition here:

The first politician to sign the petition was Greens Senator Lee Rhiannon who first raised questions about this case in November 2000, not long after our first reports appeared in the SMH. (I republished those early stories on this blog.) Rhiannon later asked further questions about the police role in the case and about the case of Jake Sourian, another Thomas frame-up.
I will continue to report on this story and will pursue my questions with the authorities.If the Crown had not been so determined to cover-up and there were avenues for redressing miscarriages of justice in our society, Roseanne would have been compensated years ago. As another supporter Claudette Palmer has reported the Attorney General’s department were involved in negotiations for compensation in 2006.For some unknown reason these negotiations were abandonned.
Given that there has been a lot of discussion in the media about journalism, neutrality and politics this week, I thought I’d add a small comment on that topic.Some people may wonder why as a journalist, I’m promoting a petition, which is after all a form of political action. Suffice it to say here that I regard the essential obligations of a journalist as being to the evidence and the’truth’. I apply the MEAA code of ethcis which mirrors that of most organisations of journalists around the world. My views on Roseanne’s case are based on months of research over many years. But once convinced by the evidence that she had been framed, I have an obligation as a citizen and a journalist to hold power accountable. The topic of politics and journalism is a much bigger one about which I will do more posts. I’m proud to be part of a long tradition of radical journalism and last year published a chapter in Left Turn, a book edited by Antony Loewenstein and Jeff Sparrow and published by Melbourne University Press.

Judge finds News Ltd’s reporter was not part of abuse of process.

Most of the focus on today’s Federal Court judgement in the case brought by ex-Federal Parliament Speaker Peter Slipper against his staffer James Ashby will be on the central finding that Ashby’s sexual harrassment case against his ex-boss was an abuse of process.

Justice Rares found:

Mr Ashby instituted the proceedings without reasonable cause because they were and are an abuse of the process of the Court.

The court also found that Ashby’s co-worker Karen Doane and ex LNP Mal Brough acted with Ashby for the purpose of inflicting political damage on Slipper. But Slipper also alleged that News Ltd’s senior Daily Telegraph reporter Steve Lewis was part of Ashby’s plan to damage the Speaker. Justice Rares’ finding in favour of Lewis will be a relief to reporters who are often accused of being involved in political games. Lewis, he found, was just doing what reporters are expected to do – chase stories.

Rares subjected the actions of Lewis to detailed examination and found his actions as a reporter played an important role in the affair. But he found there was nothing unusual in a symbiotic relationship between journalists and people involved in politics. ( This is certainly true).

Lewis had been reporting on Slipper unfavourably for two years. Ashby and Doane would “have believed that Mr Lewis would give their stories attacking the person for whom they were working a sympathetic, if not enthusiastic, airing.” Nevertheless, Rares concluded that Lewis was merely acting as most reporters would do in vigorously pursuing a story and that there was no evidence that his actions were politically motivated.

His findings in relation to Lewis can be found in the judgement from Par. 142 onwards:

Mr Lewis appears to have pursued, enthusiastically, the stories potentially available to him based on Mr Ashby’s and Ms Doane’s information. However, I am not satisfied that Mr Lewis shared with them the purpose of advancing the political interests of Mr Brough or the LNP or of aiding Mr Ashby or Ms Doane in their future prospects of advancement or preferment. It is more likely that Mr Lewis was focused on obtaining good copy for stories to sell newspapers. He may not have been so naïve that he was blind to the motivations of Mr Ashby, Ms Doane or Mr Brough. Mr Lewis was no doubt wanting to encourage them, as sources, to continue to provide material which he could use to publish. But, that did not involve him in seeking to achieve the same end as his sources, despite some overlap. Publication of significant or sensational news can have significant impact on the public perception of persons or bodies referred to in the stories that favours one side rather than another in the political debates of the day. However, that consequence does not necessarily suggest that the journalist or publisher is seeking to aid or support the side of politics that benefits from the publication. Rather, it is more likely that, by publishing the story, the journalist or publisher is simply fulfilling his, her or its role of reporting news. Once presented with sources such as Mr Ashby and Ms Doane, together with the prospect of a story such as in the originating application, it is difficult to think that any journalist would have acted differently to Mr Lewis in pursuing and publishing that story.

The question many will ask is whether Lewis would have been as enthusiastic if he was pursuing Abbott, Hockey or Bishop.The truth is that News Ltd’s agenda is so well known that sources seeking to damage the Coalition would have been less likely to approached Lewis and News Ltd would not have encouraged him so keenly to pursue such an investigation or paid the sources’expenses. News Ltd’s disdain for the Gillard government has been open. Political reporters act within professional boundaries but are often used to meet the poltiical goals of media companies that employ them.
The role of Lewis needs more examination.

Effective media accountability does not have to threaten journalists’ independence

Journalists, especially those from News Ltd, and right wing commentators promote the illusion that the Australian Gillard Labor government is threatening to ‘regulate’ the media in response to rigorous scrutiny of its performance.  It has even been suggested that the Australian Labor Party is bullying News Ltd which is by far the most powerful media owner in this country.

In making this claim journalists and commentators gloss over the findings of the recent 2011 Finkelstein Independent Media Inquiry and the Convergence review. Journalists who promote the simplistic idea that these inquires are promoting government control and censorship have either not read the reports properly or are deliberately falling into line with their employers distaste for accountability.

The Finkelstein Inquiry recommended a government funded independent complaints body across all media while the Convergence inquiry recommended a industry run self-regulatory body across all media, mostly funded by industry but with some public financial support.  Both inquiries emphasised that any such body should be ‘independent’ of government for the explicit reason that freedom from potential government interference is crucial in a democracy.  Both recommended remedies for those who successfully complained about lack of accuracy and fairness which promoted a right to speak rather than censorship, such as corrections and rights of reply. The Finkelstein inquiry did state that if orders for corrections were made and the media refused to comply with these, contempt of court orders might follow. This is not much different from the Australian Press Council’s (APC)position which is that the Council should be able to issue enforceable orders. It is hard to see how an accountability system which does not have any rights to enforceability is an accountability system at all. (For a summary of Finkelstein’s findings, read my summary on New Matilda; Politics Professor Rod Tiffen also tried to correct misleading press reporting on the Inquiry here.)

Finkelstein proposed publicly funded statutory body would consist of  media and public but no  government representatives. He reached this conclusion after ex-APC Chairs gave evidence to his inquiry that the APC did not have sufficient independence to deal with complaints effectively. This was partly because the big media owners can and have withdrawn support and participation from the APC at different stages in its history. The media owners denied that there were any deficiencies in the current system. Finkelstein explicitly found that  although self-regulation was the preferred model , this failure to acknowledge any problems with the current system led him to recommend the statutory body. His intention was to maximise not limit independence of media as well as the legitimate expectations of the public to fair and accurate coverage by journalists. He could scarcely recommend a system labelled as a failure by those responsible for running it

The Convergence Inquiry reviewed Finkelstein findings but preferred a self-regulatory body across all media. (See chapter four of the report.). This body would however received some public funding, a suggestion that had been rejected by the owners at the Finkelstein inquiry as unnecessary. The Inquiry found there should be a time -limit for industry to form such a body which would include all big news and commentary providers.

Since these Inquiries, the APC  has been encouraging the print/online industry to get its act together by improving Council handling of complaints and securing an more reliable funding base. News Ltd and Fairfax Media have come to the party but Seven West Media which as owner of West Australian newspapers and Channel Seven is the third dominant power has pulled out of the APC altogether which does not bode well for those who prefer the self-regulatory model.

It’s understandable that media owners should want to maximise their own freedom to pursue their preferred political and commercial agendas. But the interests of journalists are different. Our interest is surely to have a media which is trusted and accountable to the public. Accountability requires redress for those who are the victims of falsehoods and persistent unfairness. These do not have to be ones which encourage censorship but rather ones which give people the right to corrections and responses. An effective media accountability system would actually bolster journalists’ independence from owners. It’s worth noting that media bosses opposed both the formation of the journalists’ union code of ethics and the APC as forms of interference into their ‘freedom’ to decide what media to provide. Those same media bosses meanwhile successfully lobbied for government policies which secured their dominance.

Journalists claim they answer to the public not the government. If they don’t like either the Convergence or the Finkelstein model, what form of accountability do they have in mind, if any?

Whatever complaints mechanism we choose, the bigger structural problems of concentration of ownership and consequent abuses of media power remain.

Coverage of phone hacking scandal – a litmus test for News Ltd

This week, Jenna Price and I published a small Australian Centre for Independent Journalism study on the coverage of the phone hacking scandal in Australia on The Conversation a new publishing venture from the Australian university and research sector.

We found that if you relied on News tabloids for your information, the phone hacking scandal would have come as a big surprise when it turned into a crisis in July, this year. That said, there was a difference between the News tabloids in the week leading up to the cancellation of the News bid for BSkyB – the Adelaide Advertiser and the Herald Sun (Melbourne) carried 16 stories, almost twice the nine stories carried by the Sydney based Daily Telegraph.

It was great to see our story taken up by ABC site, The Drum.