Mainstream media presumption of guilt threatens Pell and others' prosecutions

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'... a new book by ABC investigative journalist Louise Milligan alleges that Pell abused two choirboys in the 1990s. Fairfax media has promoted this new gospel.' (Image via @abbeysbookshop)

Based on the media’s conviction of Pell, he could possibly win a permanent stay of any criminal prosecution, writes John Passant.

THE PRESUMPTION OF INNOCENCE is taking a battering in the press at the moment. From drug running to paedophilia to tax fraud, mainstream and other media seem to have forgotten an important class lesson — and in doing so threaten one at least possible prosecution.

What is this presumption?

According to the Attorney-General’s Department site:

‘The presumption of innocence imposes on the prosecution the burden of proving the charge and guarantees that no guilt can be presumed until the charge has been proved beyond reasonable doubt.’

The presumption was won after a long struggle against the divine right of kings to rule and to imprison people or execute them without any crime having been committed. It is a subset of the right to a fair trial, itself won over centuries of struggle and papal intervention. A fair trial means citizens (your peers) making judgements based on the evidence.

It is up to the state to prove you guilty of the crime you are charged with and to do so beyond reasonable doubt. Until then, you are presumed innocent and any activity that may taint that presumption could destroy the trial, or even destroy the possibility of a successful prosecution.

Take 22-year-old Australian Cassie Sainsbury. She was arrested in Colombia in April and charged with drug trafficking. She was allegedly in possession of 5.8 kilograms of cocaine.

On Sunday, 60 Minutes, a Channel 9 sewer outlet parading as Australia’s top current affairs program, to use its own words

‘… uncovered claims Cassandra Sainsbury left behind a trail of deceit, even lying about her own mother’s death for financial advantage. More details of Cassie’s work at the brothel and how she ended up in prison [were] revealed in a special edition of 60 Minutes Australia.’

The picture these ghouls of the press painted about Sainsbury was that she was a liar, a cheat and, on top of that, a prostitute. The implication is obvious: that she is desperate for money and prepared to do anything to get it. In other words, without actually saying it, she is likely to be guilty as charged.

How can Sainsbury get a fair trial after these allegations? My view is that Sixty Minutes has undermined her defence. Sixty Minutes have convicted her, all for extra viewers and more ad revenue.

Then there is the tax fraud case. Some not very clever people allegedly creamed off payments that should have been remitted to the Tax Office. The amount according to reports is about $165 million. The scheme lasted less than a year. They have been charged.

Two of the people arrested are the children of Deputy Commissioner of Taxation Michael Cranston. Michael had, until Wednesday, been the public face of the ATO’s attempts to crack down on tax crooks. He allegedly sought unauthorised access through ATO systems to information about his children’s arrangements. He has been issued with a court attendance notice for June when police say he will be charged with abuse of his position as an officer of the Commonwealth.

Readers will know I am no fan of the Commissioner of Taxation, having recently called for his resignation. However the fact that this arrangement was picked up and was being investigated for 8 months and that appears to be not too long after it was set up, shows the system is working.

So too does the fact that Michael Cranston has been given a court appearance notice for the alleged abuse of his position. Michael has been stood down, without pay. That at least gives some support for the view that he is innocent until proven guilty. That is the ATO’s approach.

The hyperventilating from many sections of the media about the alleged fraud and the impacts on public faith in the Tax Office itself undermines public trust. The simple fact is that the system is working. People have been charged. The hyperventilating creates an environment in which guilt is assumed.  

It is not often I agree with the ATO leadership – I think the current regime is an example of regulatory capture – but the media hysteria is, as Andrew Mills, the acting Commissioner described it, fake news.

Then there is Cardinal George Pell. News emerged that the Victorian Director of Public Prosecutions had given advice to Victoria Police about allegations of abuse by Pell of two boys over 30 years ago. We need to be clear. That advice could be to drop the investigation, continue it, or prosecute.

Both the Herald Sun and the Fairfax Media have been suggesting (possibly based on leaks from Victoria Police) that the DPP believes that enough evidence exists to begin criminal proceedings against Cardinal George Pell. In the same week, a new book by ABC investigative journalist Louise Milligan alleges that Pell abused two choirboys in the 1990s. Fairfax media has promoted this new gospel.

Such leaks and the new book may well prejudice any possible prosecution. How can Pell in these circumstances receive a fair trial, if it gets that far? How could the court system find 12 peers not influenced by the prejudicial reporting? How can the victims of Catholic Church paedophilia receive justice?

Based on the media’s conviction of Pell, he could possibly win a permanent stay of any criminal prosecution. Is that what we want?

The left must reclaim the anti-establishment role of the right to a fair trial and the presumption of innocence, not join in pre-emptive convictions. 

Let’s look at this from a slightly different angle. The system already locks up asylum seekers, people who have committed no crime, in concentration camps.

It pre-emptively convicts Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. Indigenous people make up 2% of the population but 27% of the prison population. To put this another way, the imprisonment rate among non-Aboriginal people stands at 154 prisoners per 100,000. By comparison, the indigenous imprisonment rate is 2,346 prisoners per 100,000 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander population or over 15 times higher than the non-Aboriginal population.

Aboriginal deaths in custody are pre-emptive justice imposed by the state and its agents. They are higher now than when the Royal Commission examined the issue and made numerous recommendations to reduce them.

Let's also not forget the mainstream media's premature conviction of Peter Slipper — who, though few now remember, was eventually found not guilty of the trivial charges that were eventually brought against him.

We on the left fight against these systemic abuses of due process by the capitalist state. We should not join in the media pre-emptively convicting Pell.

Read more by John Passant on his website En Passant or follow him on Twitter @JohnPassant.

Signed copies of John Passant’s first book of poetry, Songs for the Band Unformed (Ginninderra Press 2016) are available for purchase from the IA store HERE.

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