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8 April, 2005  
Attorney General turns bazookas on Rupert's rags

Attorney General Debus goes to the Press Council with an enormous complaint against The Australian and its coverage of the judiciary … Allens’ chief turns PR triumph into poo … My hot tip for President of the Victorian Court of Appeal … Damage to Stephen Archer’s reputation should be weighed by jury … Newspaper war over scarce law firm advertising dollars … Everyone’s complaining about Margaret Cunneen

imageWell, well, fancy that. There’s an attorney general prepared to stand-up and defend the judiciary.

Bob Debus the NSW AG has fired off a 70-page finely tuned complaint to the Australian Press Council about the selective and biased manner in which the Dirty Digger’s Australian and Daily Telegraph newspapers have covered the NSW judiciary.

This is a full-on response to the Murdoch tissues’ “campaign” against the judges

The AG relied on advice and input from the NSW Chief Justice J.J. Spigelman.

If the Press Council upholds the complaint, then the newspapers are required to publish the adverse findings in full.

Debus says the chief culprit is The Australian which in eight articles published in December 2004 and January 2005 misrepresented and suppressed relevant facts, distorted facts, and confused fact with opinion. In other words, accuracy, fairness and balance were wanting.

The newspaper was highly critical of the length of the courts’ summer holidays. In some cases it sought to connect the backlog of cases with the length of the summer break by misreading or misinterpreting old figures in the Productivity Commission’s report on government services.

The Australian’s link between the two was absurdly crude as Justinian explained at the time. See story

On 20 separate occasions the public information officer of the Supreme Court attempted to explain matters to two of Rupert’s reptiles (Vanda Carson and Ean Higgins), but got nowhere. Spigs wrote two letters of protest. One received limited coverage the other was ignored.

The Smellagraph has been roped into the fray because on March 2, 2005 it relied on the clips from The Australian and repeated various assertions without seeking comment from the court. The article, Debus says, is false, misleading and damaging.

The Productivity Commission complained to The Australian about misrepresentation, but its letter was not published. An officer from the commission said that when she told Higgins he had misconstrued the figures, he was “disinterested”.

Debus says the NSW Supreme Court and its judges were “consistently and unfairly targeted by being criticised on issues without comment being sought [and the] media statements of the Chief Justice being all but ignored”.

He goes so far as to claim that the paper published stuff it “knew to be false” and then refused to correct.

Not one of Rupert’s rags, surely?

Golden moment turns to mud

Tom Poulton, from slightly soiled law shop Allens, looked a right goose with his hairy-chested outburst about how hard the troops are expected to slave for their gilded clients.

“We don’t run this place as a holiday camp We expect our people to treat the client as if they were God [sic] and to put themselves out for clients. You don’t say, ‘sorry I can’t do it, I’m playing cricket on the weekend’ You don’t have the right to any free time.”

This dismissive attitude to cricket was bound to meet with disapproval from the courts and so it was when the subject came up before Federal Court Registrar John Efthim in Aquila Resources Ltd v Pasminco Ltd:

REGISTRAR: I’ll sit as long as it takes six o’clock, seven o’clock just as long as we get this finished. I’m sure Mr Murphy doesn’t want to come back

Mr DELANY: I think I’ve got some children’s cricket commitments which will mean that I’ll have to leave earlier than that, so our friends will be pleased about that.

REGISTRAR: Well, my son used to play cricket. There is nothing more important that a child’s cricketing commitment …

The awful thing is that Poulton managed to turn something that should have been a glorious moment for the firm into absolute PR poo.

The firm has been anointed best large law firm by BRW. Poulton gave the comment to the magazine’s then legal reporter Lucinda Schmidt when she sought a response about being the best of the fattest firms.

Of course, the bloodless remark grabbed the headlines, not the award. Great move Tommy.

Tip of the week

Jack Winneke, President of the Victorian Court of Appeal, retires in July.

Who better to replace him than G. Eames J, the very man the appeal judges did over so egregiously in the McCabe case?

The appointment may not be, as race caller Ken Howard would say, “London to a brick on”, but it’s firming fast.

Let community standards prevail

In my last missive I mentioned that Judge Judith Gibson of the NSW Dizzo was reserved on some important issues raised by the ruddy chopped, serial tax malingerer and multiple bankrupt Stephen Archer, whose ticket to practice has been cancelled by the NSW Bar n’ Grill.

See story

Archer doesn’t want Judge Judy to hear his defamation action against The Newcastle Herald. He claims the judge has a history of animus towards him. In his affidavit he says that, for instance, in 1997 he said “hello” twice to Gibson and she did not reply.

Judge Judy now has given judgment on this notice of motion. She found that the incidents happened many years ago and “Mr Archer has made a number of factual errors about dates and events which would cause the ordinary reasonable bystander to regard his beliefs as insubstantial and without any factual foundation”.

Gibson made what she described as a “sensible” proposal – for the plaintiff to wait and have his case heard by a jury under the new uniform State and Territory Defamation Act, now “in an advanced state of preparation”.

She said this is a case that was ideal “for the input of community standards” as to whether the plaintiff’s reputation has suffered further harm.


Paper wars

The departure of the Financial Review’s legal editor Chris Merritt to the evil Murdoch Empire is bound to shake-up the rather staid mainstream market for law firm advertising.

The Fun Review has made a small fortune from its Friday law section and has a stranglehold on national law firm newspaper advertising.

Merritt says his request for more resources to run his section at the business and finance daily was knocked back by the editor.

Shortly after the reporter headed to The Australian with a brief to set-up a rival weekly legal affairs page in the broadsheet and to divert as much law firm lucre as possible into Rupert’s pockets.

When Merritt returns from a four-week break the planning for the new section will get underway in earnest.

It is likely that The Oz will slash its ad rate to steal advertisers from the AFR. Two papers competing for a rather small advertising pond could see blood being shed.

Maybe they should take a leaf from the noble Justinian approach and reject all advertising as being filthy and contaminating.

Cunneen makes her point

Margaret Cunneen, the NSW deputy crown prosecutor they love to dislike, had a nice little run with her Sir Ninian Stephen Lecture at Newcastle Uni.

She talked of the tendency for criminal trials to be hijacked by legal technicalities, and that “many criminal appeals result in orders for retrials due to very minor matters, which seem most unlikely to have made any difference to the verdict of the jury”.

There were a couple of particular passages that inflamed special passions, including:

“There seems to be a fashion, among some in the criminal justice system, for a kind of misplaced altruism that it is somehow a noble thing to assist a criminal to evade conviction. I was recently walking past some defence barristers at Darlinghurst Court and they were waiting for the return of a jury. I knew nothing of the case but could surmise, from the location, that it was a murder trial and it was obvious the gentlemen were representing co-accused. Wishing to greet them with a pleasantry I said to them: ‘May justice be done.’ ‘Oh we don’t want that!’ was the mirthful reply.”

She signed off her peroration with a fine flourish.

“Justice isn’t achieved by ambush, trickery, dragging proceedings out in a war of attrition with witnesses. It’s achieved by honesty, balance and proportion.”

Bret Walker was incensed and said the speech was a “slur upon judges administering criminal law, particularly on appeal”.

John McIntyre from the NSW Law Society said it was a bit of a mystery to him because he’s received no complaints about solicitors behaving in this fashion.

Barrister Charles “Bodily Fluids” Waterstreet said his client, a fellow charged with gang rape and awaiting retrial was going to complain.

“Fluids” was reported as saying that solicitors for the accused were approaching the DPP, the Bar n’ Grill and the Supreme Court over the deputy crown prosecutor’s comments.

We hope he doesn’t prove Cunneen’s very point by angling to postpone the trial.

Fluids declared her comments were “very unwise”.