What a pity we didn’t have the modern media in earlier times. Just think of the entertainment with close-up shots of people being burnt at stake, or hung drawn and quartered. Think of microphones stuck on their faces for last-minute reactions. Or cameras for reaction shots of loved ones. Cameras set up permanently at stocks to see the tomatoes and rotten cabbages hit the faces. Run with vigilante mobs as they hunt down some suspect in the Wild West.

Those images occurred to me this week as there was discussion of some British move to have “victims of crime” decide on the sentences the perpetrators of crime will get. Already similar moves here with “victim impact statements” before sentencing.

The media are pushing, pushing, pushing to take us away from the idea of an impartial justice system with people presumed innocent unless proved guilty, and with the presiding figure of Justice herself,  eyes bandaged to avoid bias, weighing the scales impartially. In the days of X-Factor and Big Brother and Survivor where’s the entertainment value in that old-fashioned nonsense eh?

At the same time as the media pushed for revenge to come back into sentencing came another case illustrating what is happening to our justice system.

In 1991 highly respected, much-loved and valued heart surgeon Victor Chang was shot dead during a failed extortion attempt. The two killers were sentenced to very lengthy jail terms. One was released, after 18 years, a few years ago, the second, after 21 years of a 26 year sentence, was recommended for parole recently, on the grounds that he was aged 69 and suffering from advanced Parkinson’s disease and dementia and hadn’t long to live. Open and shut case? Not these days.

Immediate outrage from media, followed by more outrage from populist conservative govt leading to legal challenge. That failing, followed by deportation (both killers were Malaysian nationals). Media following to airport, where vision of a frail old man with shaking hands was accompanied by a journalist voiceover saying that he showed “no sign” of the “illness which supposedly had him released on parole”. Followed by cameramen filming him during plane trip. Followed by a tv interview in which he expressed his sorrow and regret for what he had done. Followed by a “victims of crime” spokesman rejecting the apology as not sincere.

Hard to know where to begin with this. It is the classic media “whip up outrage and sell newspapers” ploy. And it gets people phoning the shock jocks, reading blog opinions. Fundamentally the media have taken the stand that all sentences should be for life and that there should be no parole. They don’t really believe this, but saying they do will agitate the people who believe we should still have public whipping and hanging. And will agitate the victims of crime who believe no punishment is too great.

Jail is meant to serve four purposes: punishment, public protection, deterrence, rehabilitation. The second and fourth of those were no longer relevant to this sick old man. The deterrence part was long gone (“hmm, if I murder someone and am sentenced to 26 years and contract Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s diseases after 20 I’ll get parole and be deported. Hey, that’s pretty slack, where’s my gun.”). So that leaves punishment.

Punishment, as William Gilbert remarked, is meant to fit the crime. That is why we have a graded system of sentences to match a graded system of crimes of increasing seriousness. If you are going to give the maximum sentence for small crimes how will you discourage greater crimes? Australia should be specially sensitive to this given our convict past arising from a criminal justice system that could hang someone for poaching, send them to Australia for stealing a handkerchief. If you always demand a maximum sentence, if you complain about parole board decisions, however strongly based, then what we have reverted to is a legal system based on revenge, not justice. And revenge, as Shakespeare and indeed the Greek playwrights knew, puts bums on seats.

As I was writing this came yet another disturbing development. The West Australian government announced the launch of a web site carrying photos and details of paedophiles. As the lawyer’s association pointed out, this is a clear invitation to vigilantism, and the attendant problems of misidentification and the discouraging of rehabilitation.

Look, dunno about you but if, Rumpole forbid, I ever found myself entangled in the legal system, I would rather my fate was decided by a qualified judge and a jury of my peers and an experienced parole board, than by a sensationalist media, populist politicians, and wannabe lynch mobs.

Time the tabloids (of print, television, radio) cooled it on the legal system, or before you know it you might have policemen bribed, phones tapped, people followed, all in the name of sensational stories from court cases. And then, who knows, members of the media might find themselves in court, being covered by other media…

It’s in no one’s interest for the justice system to be turned into a branch of the entertainment industry.

2 comments on “Justitia

  1. Absolutely! Though I think the crassness of the media reflects the society we have developed, rather than the other way round. The wider problem seems to me to be that human ingenuity has developed ways of exchanging information that require advanced, objective cognitive processes. Neither the mass of society, nor the crass media that serves it, shows much interest in developing those strands of endeavour.

    On your central point, I agree. The law (and its practical application) should not be subject to mob rule.


  2. paul walter says:

    The sleazy attack on due process and habeas corpus has been the defining characteristic and great tragedy of this century.


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