Pot and Prejudice: The Media Coverage of the Schapelle Corby Trial Should Figure Prominently in the Australian Media Textbooks Published in the Next Decade

Article excerpt

IT is inconceivable that in the chapters which cover journalistic ethics and standards, the performance of many commercial media organizations during this saga will not come under close scrutiny. An initial (up to early June) analysis of the media coverage in this article argues that the performances of many popular, high-rating and largely tabloid media outlets have been lamentable at best. More pessimistically, it could be argued that this Australian media coverage has incited hatred and hostility of Indonesia and its entire legal system. At the time of writing, this has already resulted in potentially explosive criminal acts against the Indonesian Embassy in Canberra and some Indonesian courts in Ball.

Any analysis of mainstream media coverage of any social, political or cultural issue requires a solid framework. Increasingly, the ethics of journalism, or lack of them, have figured prominently in an assessment of how certain sections of the Australian media have performed. The Corby case has two separate but not unrelated phenomena: Trial by Media and Chequebook Journalism. These are not new in Australian journalism. Both forms of unethical behaviour have been understood to be a regular feature of mainstream reporting, and there are warnings against both in the Code of Ethics guidelines issued by the Media Arts and Entertainment Alliance. Unfortunately, both forms of journalism surfaced prominently in the reporting of the Corby trial.

Trial by Media

THE notion of Trial by Media is best understood as a situation where the media not only report the evidence presented inside a courtroom, but actually shape that news with very particular sets of opinion.

In its most basic form, this is a 'process in which mainstream media organizations 'pick sides' and act as de facto prosecutors or defence advocates before taking on the role of judge and/or jury. Most legal systems, including those of Indonesia and Australia, operate on an adversarial basis, with both prosecutors and defence counsel trying to sway the opinions of the court. The crucial role played by reporters, journalists and editors is one that can set agendas by selection or omission of the key facts which emerge as the story is presented. As 'gatekeepers', these media figures make decisions on what they consider to be important when they construct stories for their audiences.

As many noteworthy trials last for weeks or months, it is usually only possible to print or broadcast abbreviated accounts of proceedings. Because the media is often highly selective in the way the stories are shaped, the accounts themselves can easily become distorted.

When this occurs, the net result of Trial by Media reporting is that the agenda is firmly set for many media consumers, who somehow end up feeling that they are now qualified to be members of the jury. They seem to feel that they have all the relevant information at their disposal and are able to sit in judgement. They have been positioned by these media reports as legal experts, and are encouraged by talkback radio and media-sponsored opinion polls to judge the merits of the case. In many instances, they go further by openly criticizing the performances of those acting in a professional capacity inside the courtroom.

It is stunning to consider the tonnes of newsprint and hours and hours of broadcasting material devoted to Schapelle Corby's arrest in October 2004, and her subsequent trial and conviction in May 2005. Three television networks (Seven, Nine and Pay TV's SkyNews) telecast the verdict live in a three-hour satellite special. This was broadcast during a non-peak viewing period (Friday afternoon), yet still managed to draw over a million Australian viewers. In the first few weeks following the verdict, there were ongoing related stories about possible appeal processes, prisoner exchange schemes, differences of opinion between those advocating Corby's innocence, and, of course, the alleged related incident at the Indonesian Embassy in Canberra, where some mysterious white powder was posted to officials. …