Christopher Dawson’s supreme court guilty verdict on Tuesday prompted a dramatic six pages of reporting in the Australian, only to be outdone by seven pages in the Daily Telegraph in Sydney.
This is bigger than the moon landing and, once again, it demonstrates that when it comes to a top billing murder case, nothing succeeds like excess.
The Sydney Morning Herald was comparatively modest with half the front page and coverage on pages eight and nine.
And on it goes. The following day relatives of Dawson’s murdered wife were on the ramparts demanding a new law – no parole for convicted murderers if they fail to reveal the location of their victims’ remains.
Inevitably, the media are engaged in a complex dance when reporting big murder stories. There’s the ka-ching factor – the sales and revenue driven by public interest; and there’s the long arm of the law’s insistence that potential jurors are not prejudiced about an accused, one way or the other.
All the big public interest murder trials of recent memory have been accompanied by these competing contentions: Lindy Chamberlain; Gordon Wood; Kathleen Folbigg, Jeffrey Gilham; John Wayne Glover the granny killer; Perth barrister Lloyd Rayney; double murderer Bruce Burrell; Simon Gittany, the man who threw his fiancee off a 15th floor balcony; and Leonard John Warwick, the family court bomber.
In these cases, and many others, everyone was on the jury – with firm and fixed opinions about guilt or innocence based on what was served up by the media.
To be clear, Wood and Gilham were acquitted on appeal, Rayney was also found not guilty at his trial before Justice Brian Martin, and Chamberlain’s conviction was quashed after new evidence emerged.
Dawson’s trial was before a judge alone. Justice Ian Harrison was the trial judge and the jury, all wrapped in one. On an application by the accused, the normal 12 good and true citizens were dispensed with by Justice Robert Beech-Jones one week before the trial commenced on 9 May.
The judge pointed to “egregious” pre-trial publicity and to The Teacher’s Pet podcast, which was predisposed against Dawson.
The Twelve, currently being streamed into lounge rooms across the nation, gives a chilling insight into jurors and their fractured lives while at the same time they try to concentrate on the evidence before them.
The Teacher’s Pet podcast, prepared and hosted by journalist Hedley Thomas of the Australian, played a key role in curating public opinion after it was first downloaded in May 2018. It has also prompted a degree of self-basting in News Corp’s reporting of the verdict. .
The Australian stopped the local downloads in April 2019 after a request by the director of public prosecutions.
Dawson made other pre-trial applications, testing every available escape hatch in the armory of the law.
Because of the publicity and the popularity of the podcast, which has been downloaded a reported 60m times worldwide, he wanted his trial permanently stopped. He argued it would be impossible to get a fair trial with an uninfected jury.
Justice Elizabeth Fullerton rejected that application on 11 September 2020, but did order a nine-month stay. In the process she said:
“I am in no doubt that the adverse publicity in this case, or more accurately, the unretrained and uncensored public commentary about the applicant’s guilt, is the most egregious example of media interference with a criminal trial process which this court has had to consider in deciding whether to take the extraordinary step of permanently staying a criminal prosecution.”
She was also critical of former NSW police commissioner Mick Fuller for appearing as part of Thomas’s podcast.
Dawson unsuccessfully appealed Fullerton’s decision to the court of criminal appeal and the high court.
With an unfavourable outcome on that front, on the day Dawson’s trial commenced, Harrison heard an application that reporting of the proceedings should be suppressed until after a district court trial where Dawson faces a charge of carnal knowledge of a 16-year-old school student. .
The application was rejected on open justice grounds.
Hedley Thomas’ 16-episode podcast was available for download between May 2018 and April 2019. Dawson was charged on 6 December 2018 – one day after the 16th episode called “Arrest”.
The Teacher’s Pet was enlightening and, as it turned out, the reporting was in step with the verdict.
One of the most disturbing aspects of the case is why it took so long for the machinery of justice to grind into action. There were teams of investigating police looking at it from at least 2015. If anything, it appears the media and the accompanying public opinion were responsible for getting the police and the prosecutors to apply a bit of gas to the process.
Yet, throughout the Dawson investigation and the pre-trial manoeuvres we’ve seen quite an amount of judicial tut-tutting about the media. “Egregious” is a favorite word when it comes to journalists and their reporting. The judges are keen to protect their patch while journalists are playing on different turf that sometimes overlaps.
There are solutions to this – as we’ve seen: judges have the capacity to delay trials if the pre-charge publicity is too intense. They can also decide that one of their own should replace a conventional jury if too much prejudice is in the air.
Judges, we’re advised, are immune to the prejudice that is so contagious to everyone else.
When the media landscape was occupied by a handful of compliant mainstay large media companies there was little to no trouble. The new order is alarmingly different, and everyone has a printing press in their pocket.
As we saw in the George Pell case, despite judges trying to preserve a sanitised trial process, the world is now the oyster of instant communications. While everyone could read on international news websites about Pell’s conviction (he was acquitted on appeal), local media were under orders not to go near it.
There was an eerie lack of reality about this. It indicated that the courts are fighting a losing battle to keep things as they always were.