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Panpa Bulletin : July 2006
24 | PANPA BULLETIN July 2006 MEDIA MATTERS MarK PearSon the privacy laws should be amended when it comes to the safety of a community says Mark Pearson. Ihave a confession to make. Three years ago I failed to answer a cry for help from a reporter I had taught in a media law training course some years previously. I felt bad about not responding at the time, but I had reasons for my decision and, on reflection, stand by them now. Why do I raise this with edi- tors in 2006? I do so because it relates to the secret processes of the mental health system which most of you are unable to report upon in your own communities. The single page, handwritten letter came unexpectedly to my work address in 2003. The in- dividual wrote that he recalled fondly the media law training course of mine he had attended. I had probably heard, he wrote, of the terrible sequence of events he had been involved in since we last met, but after some time in an institution he had now been granted leave into the commu- nity and eventually discharged. He hoped I would be happy to engage in correspondence with him. His address in a major Aus- tralian city was at the top of the page. In fact I was not aware of the "terrible sequence of events" sur- rounding him, and that was re- ally no surprise given the lack of media coverage of the matter. I don't know how much broad- cast coverage there had been of his crime, but I found only five newspaper and wire service ac- counts of the events -- three cov- ering the crime itself before an accused had been named and two naming my acquaintance as the alleged perpetrator after a court appearance. The basic story was that my former trainee had killed some- one who had come to counsel him over the considerable trou- bles he was facing at the time. Two of the accounts of the at- tack were quite graphic, and I decided, given the fact that I had two teenage daughters living at home at the time, I did not have enough faith in the psychiatric rehabilitation process to risk any danger to them, no matter how remote that might be. But the point of this column is not to discuss my own ethical di- lemma about responding to him. It is to point out the secrecy that surrounds that alternative sys- tem of criminal justice. For centuries our courts have operated under the fundamen- tal principle of open justice. As early as the 16th century, the Star Chamber, an infamous Eng- lish court, was routinely open to the public, and the great legal scholar Sir William Blackstone wrote in 1765 that the open ex- amination of witnesses, "in the presence of all mankind, is much more conducive to the clearing up of truth". NSW Chief Justice Jim Spigel- man said in a 1999 speech to the Australian Legal Convention ". . . one of the most pervasive axioms of the administration of justice in our legal system" was the princi- ple that justice should not merely be done, but must be seen to be done. But justice is not seen to be done when it is conducted be- hind the closed doors of mental health tribunals where psychia- trists present their reports on assessment and, when someone has been deemed to be "cured", they are released back into soci- ety.That is exactly what seems to have happened to my acquaint- ance. Less than three years after killing this counsellor the sub- ject of this story was walking the streets of an Australian city. In my home state of Queens- land, the Department of Health website boasts about decision- making processes under its Men- tal Health Act 2000 having "been designed to ensure transparency and accountability"(http://www. health.qld.gov.au/mha2000/). Then, when you view the legisla- tion itself, you find blanket bans on the reporting of mental health proceedings and on identifying those involved in proceedings, including any witnesses. In May this year it was revealed the mentally ill killer Claude John Gabriel had been given day re- lease into the community under the care of his parents on 12 oc- casions since mid-March. Gabriel had stabbed a teen- ager to death in 1998, and had fled overseas in 2002 after being helped to escape by his parents -- the very people who were look- ing after him on day release this year. Despite all this, he could only be identified -- and I can only do so here -- because he had been named in State Parliament. Please do not read this as an at- tack on the fact we have an alter- native system for those deemed mentally ill. If our society has enough confidence in modern psychiatric medicine to deem an individual not responsible for a heinous crime because of a men- tal illness, then so be it. But for goodness sake open that process to public scrutiny. Make the tribunals deciding on these individuals' rehabilitation and freedom accountable to the rest of us, just like the judges and magistrates who adjudicate upon trials in our courts. And if a person who has killed someone less than three years earlier has been completely cured and is being released into the community, let the media re- port upon it so other citizens are aware of the fact and can make their own informed decisions. We hear a great deal about victims' rights -- and victims are certainly stakeholders in such decisions. But what about the right of the ordinary citizen to be informed thoroughly about the workings of the criminal justice system, in- cluding those cases which might result from a mental illness? Mark Pearson is the head of Journalism at Bond university. When is secrecy a bad thing? The basic story was that my former trainee had killed someone who had come to counsel him over the considerable troubles he was facing at the time For goodness sake open that process to public scrutiny. Make the tribunals deciding on these individuals’ rehabilitation and freedom accountable to the rest of us