17 February 2009

Calls for lynching and torture on the evening news: Welcome to Australia 2009

On Thursday last week, a man was arrested and charged with starting a fire in Victoria, one that burned through the small town of Churchill, where he lived. That fire killed at least 21 people – the entire town has been declared a crime scene and the final number won’t be known until a forensic investigation is completed – and destroyed about 200 homes.

His name is Brendan Sokaluk and he’s 39. He was charged with arson causing death, intentionally lighting a bushfire and possessing images of child pornography. His legal aid defence lawyer told the court at his remand hearing that he was in “a fragile mental state” and “should be seen by a doctor”.

His chances of a fair trial are now almost nil thanks to some fervid vigilantism and its support in some sections of the media.

It’s not hard to understand that people want someone to blame. In some of these small communities, brought together in stressful circumstances, the whispers and rumours got so out of control that a high-level police officer had to appeal for people to stop reporting anything to the police unless they were actually material witnesses.

It’s not even hard to understand how all the shock and grief and anger could be channelled into hatred against a suspected arsonist. If you want evidence of it, just look at any of the dozens of Facebook groups people have been set up to vent it. (Here’s an example, although it might be already be gone as they are being shut down as they appear.) Of course, there’s a lot of posturing going on there, and the death threats – a serious legal issue – are endless, but there’s also an almost unbearable amount of pain.

The media coverage of the Sokaluk arrest has been remarkably restrained because, after its role in the Cronulla race riots in 2005, sections of the media have become a little more gun-shy about whipping up a mob mentality.

One notable exception was Channel Seven mic monkey Chris Reason who stood in Churchill on Saturday, reading out comments from Facebook:

“They've been posting comments like this. Quote: ‘Hope this bastard burns’ and this one: ‘Cut off his fingers and toes, re-stitch them, then cut them off again.’ Many residents in here in Churchill say they feel the same.”
To prove that the residents of Churchill feel the same, he walked into the street and asked them, “What do you reckon the town would do if they got their hands on him?” One woman said, “I'd like to get him and pour petrol on him and burn him to death.” Another replied, “Oh, they'd tear him apart.”

If there’s a line between reporting and instigating lynching, Chris Reason crossed it. Sokaluk is still innocent until proven guilty (a concept that always flies out the window immediately in any emotionally charged case), and Reason irresponsibly jeopardised his chances of a fair trial in a very poor show of "journalism". No doubt Reason, and Seven, will be facing the legal consequences of their actions.

Brendan Sokaluk is due to appear again on 26 May, although there is a rising tide of legal opinion that says there is so little chance of a fair trial being possible that a permanent stay will be granted instead.

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