If I have to appear in court, will the media be there?

A few years ago in the Brisbane Magistrates Court a criminal lawyer who was appearing for one of ten young men charged with the murder of another young man in Zillmere was verbally reprimanded by the Magistrate for stating that he was appearing for one of the ‘Zillmere 10’.  The Magistrate corrected the lawyer and told him that the defendants should be referred to as the ‘co-accused’ and that labelling the matter as the ‘Zillmere 10’ was sensationalising the matter.

What the Magistrate was referring to was the general practice by the media to apply labels or nicknames to matters or defendants specifically in order to increase readership of their publications.  Of course, this may not always be their intention – sometimes these labels are applied as a matter of convenience, or sometimes the matter has such peculiar features or hallmarks that it is referred to by a label that would be easily understood by many.

We are often asked by our clients whether the media will be present in the courtroom during their matter and if they are, whether or not their matter is likely to be reported.  This article will explain how and why the media sometimes choose to appear and what they can and can’t report on.

What sorts of matters will the media appear on?

In most courts on most days, the media will not be sitting in the courtroom waiting all day for an interesting matter to report on.  Sometimes they do – I have seen it occur in the Ipswich Magistrates Court and the Southport Magistrates Court – but most often they don’t.  However, if the matter is a high profile one then they will almost certainly be present.  High profile matters might be extremely serious ones, such as a murder or manslaughter, or they might involve very minor offences committed by high profile people.  The simple test is – would the general population find the matter interesting to read about and discuss and if so, it’s likely the media would report on it.

How do the media know to be there?

The media are very savvy people with connections in various organisations – through the police, the courts and even sometimes the criminal defence lawyers themselves.  The police might opt to notify the media about a matter with the intention of having it reported and this could be for a number of reasons.  For example, the police might be seeking the community’s assistance in an investigation (i.e. seeking witnesses who might know about a matter to approach them) or they might be seeking to parade the defendant in order to deter others from committing similar offences.  In most cases, it is entirely routine and there is nothing unethical about the police tipping the media off about a matter that is being heard in court.

Where the ethical boundaries become a bit more blurred is when a criminal defence lawyer, acting for a defendant, notifies the media about a matter.  This is because the criminal lawyer’s ethical obligation is to have the defendant’s best interests at heart and often notifying the media to appear so that the matter could be reported on operates against that.

So why might a criminal lawyer notify the media about their own defendant?  The simple answer is for publicity.  Some criminal lawyers in Brisbane and elsewhere will notify the media so that the media will report on their matter and splash the criminal lawyer’s name all over the TV and newspapers.  This is good publicity for the lawyer, but often bad for the client because their name and sometimes their image will be all over the news.  This is sometimes the reason why you will often see and read about the same lawyers over and over again.

On the other hand, there are other criminal lawyers who will refuse to notify the media about their matters and even refuse to talk to the media in an interview following the appearance.  These lawyers seek to preserve the privacy of their clients and even though it means giving up valuable publicity, they understand that it is worth it.  This is the practice that Cridland & Hua Lawyers adopts, which is why you will not often see our matters, even very high profile or serious ones, being reported on in the news.

What are the media banned from reporting?

As a general rule, the media can report on any proceeding they like, provided that it is accurate and only reports on things that have actually occurred in the courtroom.  For example, there have been a couple of recent instances where trials have had to be aborted because a journalist reported on things that were not discussed in court, during the trial, because it could significantly prejudice the defendant.

The media are, however, generally banned from revealing the identities of the victims or defendants if they are children (under the age of 18).  This rule is applied very rigidly.  For example, if an adult man is charged with indecent treatment of a 14 year old girl the media are generally not allowed to reveal the man’s identify because doing so might also identify the 14 year old girl.

The media generally report accurately and fairly and within the bounds of the law but there are instances where they step outside of those bounds.

For more questions about the media and how they might be involved with a particular court case, feel free to reach out to us.

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