EDITOR CREATES DEBATE OVER LAW
THE recent Andrew Olle Media Lecture by
Australian Women’s Weekly editor Helen McCabe has touched off a debate over the reporting of domestic violence in Australia.
Ms McCabe made the point that Rosie Batty, the mother of 11-year-old Luke who was bashed to death last year by his father at a Victorian cricket ground, might not be Australia of the Year if the killing had occurred in NSW.
The law in that state prohibits the naming of deceased minors, even if the child is the victim. It is the only Australian state where this restriction applies.
“If Luke Batty had died in NSW, we could not publish his name or photograph. We could not name Rosie Batty,” Ms McCabe said in her speech. “All the important work she has done over the past 12 months would have been done anonymously or, as is more likely, wouldn’t have been done at all.”
Editor-in-chief of The Age Andrew Holden believes that laws should not prevent the media from reporting on domestic violence cases. The Age, like other newspapers at the time, published the story – even though there were still some legal issues.
“There is no doubt in my mind that Rosie Batty’s actions, particularly her remarkable impromptu press conference the following day, changed this story completely. It gave us permission, if you like, to tell this story far more comprehensively than we might have otherwise.”
Mr Holden said, technically, The Age should not have published the Batty family details at the time, as the Family Violence Protection Act in Victoria prohibits publication of any particulars relating to a Family Violence Intervention Order. Publication of the existence of an order is also prohibited.
A magistrates’ court hearing was held two days after Batty’s murder, in relation to the intervention orders. In the end, the court ruled in favour of the paper, permitting pub- lication of the existence of the order, as well as photographs of the parties.
“With a story such as this, newsrooms have to make judgments very quickly in terms of how much they publish,” Mr Holden said.
“While I hope it’s never the case, if there were to be a Rosie Batty in NSW, with the same courage and openness, then I don’t think the laws in that state would stop the media from doing the same as we did,” he said.
Australia’s Right to Know coalition has taken initial steps to raise with the NSW government the issue of identification of deceased minors. It has made recommendations to ensure that the principle of open justice is upheld, and public interest reporting is not unnecessarily restrained.
Members of the coalition include News Corp Australia, Fairfax Media, APN News & Media, The West Australian, and The Newspaper Works.
Australian Press Council chairman Professor David Weisbrot said the council was currently developing ways to improve the reporting of domestic violence.
“Helen’s comments echo some of the sentiment shared throughout our consultations on this issue. There is a lot of complex law surrounding reporting about families and children, and much of it varies in detail from state to state,” he said.
The press council has not yet decided on the best approach, but is considering developing a new specific standard for such reporting, best practice guidelines, an educational package for the industry, or a combination of the three.
“We must ensure a fair and equitable legal process for individuals, but there is also a strong public interest in open justice and in press freedom. Done responsibly, this can provide a great deal of the context in painting an accurate picture of family violence in the communities across Australia,” Prof Weisbrot said.
Helen McCabe arrives for her Andrew Olle lecture. PHOTO: News Corp Australia