Media Bullying Judges

Retired High court judge Michael Kerby in Adelaide this week

Violent headlines and “angry language’’ by the media is bullying judges and having a negative impact on public opinion, according to retired High Court Judge, Justice Michael Kirby.

And he listed a string of  provocative headlines  including “This Justice is a Sick Joke’’, “Maintain the Rage’’ and “My Fury’’ over perceived inadequate sentences.

He said derogatory language such as “Overdue For A Dressing Down’’, “Who is judging the Judges?’’ and “Judges Must Know Their Place’’ undermined judges’  independence.

Justice Kirby  was launching an academic book Courts and Judges on Trial by communications expert and UNISA lecturer, Dr Pamela Schulz at UNISA in Adelaide yesterday which outlines a “discourse of disapproval’’ of judges in media language.

The book, a powerful research analysis of media reporting of justice,  also reveals how  the issue of law and order has been politicised and media reporting has fostered a culture of fear in the community.

Justice Kirby said the judiciary had suffered a loss of esteem through media coverage.

 “We get the angry language and the dumbing down of the courts and a bully-boy attitude towards the judiciary,’’ he said.

In the past, he said the Law of Contempt had upheld the respect for the Judiciary, but  was no longer used to restrain the media since the rise of the Human Rights Movement in the 1990s.  He said Dr Schulz had shown how negative media coverage of controversial cases and judgements had affected public confidence in the judiciary.

He admitted the judiciary had an image problem and was “struggling’’ with the problem of how to communicate through the media to the community.

He said it had responded with silence in the past and had not defended itself.

“Silence is no longer an option,’’ he said.

 “The judiciary does its good work on the quiet, but we haven’t been very good in the past to get this message over,’’ said Justice Kirby.

“The problem is that silence then becomes the story.’’

He said his brother David, also a judge,  presided over murder cases. “So judges are my world: They are very intelligent, extremely hard working, very devoted, if a little boring, and very focused,’’ he said.

  “But all the hard work, responsibilities and attention to detail (of judges) is gobbled up in very angry language,’’ he said.

He said Dr Schulz had collected hundreds of headlines, news stories and court data and used it to present her thesis.

“It is the discourse of disrespect that Pamela Schulz has identified. The judiciary has become a special target.’’

 He said the judiciary was struggling with how it could communicate the really important work that it does through the media to the citizens,’’ he said.

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