Victorian bushfires media redux

Almost four weeks after the devastating bushfires that destroyed the town (picture credit: The Age), Marysville residents are angry they have not been allowed home. Victorian Police commissioner Christine Nixon appealed for patience as detectives continue the painstaking task of interviewing 600 residents suspecting the fire that destroyed the town and killed 39 people was deliberate. The state coroner has demanded all 78 towns affected by the fires be investigated for arson links however there have been few charges laid. The most publicised is Brendan Sokaluk accused of starting the fires in the Gippsland town of Churchill. His arrest unleashed a tidal wave of anger.

Earlier, I wrote, “pity some poor bastard who might be accused of arson. He or she will be pilloried as the enemy of the nation and will be lucky to survive to face trial.” So it is proving for Sokaluk, for whom the presumption of innocence is a sick joke. Within hours of being charged, he was viciously attacked in the media and social network sites to the point where some have questioned whether he can get a fair trial.

It may be impossible to find jurors not exposed to his trial by media. Seven News was among the worst offenders, blatantly exploiting community fury on Saturday 14 February, the day after Sokaluk was charged with arson (but before the suppression order on his naming was lifted). Seven mentioned gruesome quotes from Facebook hate pages and claimed many Churchill residents agreed with their sentiments. They did a vox pop in the town asking the leading question “What do you reckon the town would do if they got their hands on him?” One resident inevitably responded, “Oh, they’d tear him apart.”

Sydney’s Daily Telegraph did a prurient search of Sokaluk’s Myspace profile and deduced he had been rejected by a girlfriend, implying he was a loser who deserved the public anger the media was projecting on him. They followed this information with an appeal for readers to spread more dirt about him “Do you know Brendan Sokaluk?” shrieked the Tele. “ Call us in confidence on..”

The Inquisitr published a nasty little article which described the Myspace page as “spooky”. It said the page was “scattered with appalling spelling”, which suggested Sokaluk “may have been illiterate, or had suffered a learning disability.” The article also hinted Sokaluk may have an affiliation to a US religious group with extreme views against women clergy and gay people. Though no evidence has emerged to support these accusations, they all serve to undermine Sokaluk’s presumption of innocence.

Lawyer Greg Barns says Victoria Police acted in collusion with the media to paint him in the worst possible light. Barns said most material about the suspect came from police tips and briefings to journalists. It is in the police interest to leak information to create “a climate of guilt” around the accused and make the force look good. Police tarnished Sokaluk’s reputation by linking the arson charge with an unrelated charge of child pornography possession. Sokaluk was morphing into the personification of evil.

As former Age editor Michael Gawenda wrote last month, for journalists the bushfires were all about beating the competition to get the story. Under pressure from editors and executive producers, journalists seek out human interest stories without regard for their subjects. They add to the trauma and pay no respect to privacy, turning subjects into exploited victims for profit. “[The media] all know that a disaster like this is not just a shocking and grief-producing event, but an opportunity,” wrote Gawenda. “They know that their ratings will climb through the roof and newspaper circulations will spike.”

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