When I was a news editor, I was terrified of running foul of the courts. How far do you go in criticising a conviction or a sentence? Do you let people mouth off about a sentence being too light, too heavy, or to use that loaded word “unfair”? I wouldn’t even let through comments that one party is going to appeal the conviction or the sentence. Appeal first, THEN we publish. There’s another more prosaic reason: If you say you’re going to appeal, it’s incumbent upon the media to report that you did NOT appeal. And tell readers why not… You know how many people say things in the heat of the moment in the aftermath of a case?? Too many.
The judiciary is a strange animal (I’m not scandalising the judges with this metaphor, I hope!) I mean, you can slam the Infocomm Development Authority or that much-beseiged LTA for fines that are too paltry, but hey, careful with the courts because you might be in contempt! People in the media have heard the arguments before: Protect the integrity of the institution. Remember the judges can’t defend themselves. I’m fine with the first, but the second…aaah, the judges haven’t been sitting on their hands, have they? They have avenues too, and some have criticised outside comments during the course of hearings (I’m really, really sorry but I cannot recall specifics beyond remembering turning pale whenever a court reporter returns to the newsroom with the judges’ jibes) There’s the CJ’s speeches at opening of the Legal year and other legal functions. So the judges aren’t quite poor defenceless creatures.
There’s this other thing that I used to worry about – subjudice. You know, giving details of some crime that hasn’t gone before the courts yet. I remember admonishments from the G when some details were given away – not intentionally but neglectfully. The reason was that we shouldn’t be influencing the judge before the case is heard. Frankly, I wouldn’t think that a judge would be influenced by what’s written in the press….I mean, this is not a jury system with ordinary laymen who can be swayed….But I would draw the line at convicting a person before a trial has begun or mid-way. Or calling a crime a murder when it hasn’t been ascertained as such with all its legal implications. Someone died, my dear. He was killed. Could be accident, could be suicide, could be murder. It’s the courts’ business to decide.
Now of course, you get details on the Internet, video, photos and all. And opinion too. The G would be hard-pressed to bring everyone to book for subjudice. In fact, plenty of times I thought the media would get into trouble for giving too much away but it seems that the G is more relaxed about this.
Actually, that’s what I am not comfortable with: You never quite know when the G will decide to draw the line, at which point, over what case. So it’s natural to err on the side of caution: Say nothing at all and you will be safe. Which is bad. If you want to say something, you better have some justification for doing so. Criticise the action, not the man. And don’t go generalising stuff from a single incident or event.
I think Alex Au went overboard calling the judiciary biased by using the Woffles Wu case as a jumping off point. As for him misleading readers with his analysis of the charges against Wu etc, frankly, I find the whole thing pretty complicated too. So Wu was charged under Road Traffic act because the underlying offence was not serious, rather than the Penal Code. But the layman doesn’t care about his supposed drink driving or speeding or that he hasn’t hurt or killed anyone. It’s the aftermath – the old man who took the rap for him (supposedly) – that bothered readers. It’s THIS ACTION that they find unconscionable. No amount of explaining by the G about this section or that section or this precedent or no precedent is going to wash with the public. Given the weight of public opinion, a heavier emphasis should be given to attempts/alleged attempts (I’m being careful here…) to cover up (allegedly) a (supposed) crime, no matter how big or small. It’s a signal for future such deceptions.
You know, I keep wondering why no grounds of judgment was issued on the Woffles Wu case by the judiciary. I suppose the case is too small as it’s just a Road Traffic thing… Well, it is my considered opinion that there should be a judgment in light of public interest. Break precedent and tell the public how it came to be that Woffles got off with a fine. Maybe address some points made by the public on treatment of rich and poor (yes, I know the judges will say all men are treated equal – but good to hear from them lah). Maybe that will clear the air a bit.
I hope the judiciary isn’t scandalized by my comment. Because if it is, it’s my turn to be scandalized.