The relationship between the media and the Courts has always been a difficult one. One is seeking to achieve justice and the other, at its heart, is a business trying to sell papers, website subscriptions or advertising.
This tension has been recently highlighted within comments made by Justice Ian Harrison in the Supreme Court of NSW in his sentencing decision for Harriet Wran, daughter of former NSW premier Neville Wran, who was prosecuted for robbery and accessory to murder.
Given the identity of Wran's father, her case attracted intense media attention and led, in Justice Harrison's words, to an "ill informed" and "sustained and unpleasant campaign" against her by several NSW newspapers, resulting in "immense psychological distress".
A Judge delivering a withering critique of the media's coverage of criminal proceedings is of course nothing new, but what makes this case different is His Honour's acknowledgement that he had taken into account the damage caused by the media's treatment of the accused in deciding the sentence to be imposed. In other words, the suffering caused by the media would appear to have directly reduced the punishment inflicted by the Court's sentence - similar to a custodial sentence taking into account time already spent in prison awaiting trial.
This has certainly led to some robust debate between the legal and media sectors, including a bold response from the Sydney newspapers identified in the Judgment as being the main protagonists, who bluntly suggested that it was not the court's role to consider questions of 'media taste'. So was this a Judge being flexible in achieving justice by having regard for the impact that a negative media campaign can have on an individual, or the Courts trying to wade into an arena outside of their jurisdiction?
A cynical observer might reflect that a Judge attacking newspapers operating at the tabloid end of the spectrum for sensationalism and unreasonable attacks on those in the public glare merely adds more fuel to their sales figures and will not ultimately have any impact on the decisions made by those controlling the editorial content. On the flip side, for how long will newspapers and in particular 'social' magazines be able to justify their content, however base, invasive or damaging to the individual, with the argument that it is up to the public whether they choose to consume?