R v Internet – Panel

R v Internet – Reality Intrudes

After the morning tea break we came back to a panel discussion on the issues of contempt.

Steven Price (media law expert) started off with a list of points and was a breath of fresh air. It was great to see him state that once the information has got out, it can’t be stopped.

His position was that it’s not really a problem. When it comes to a fair trial there will have to be a change where we assume that jurors will find out information, so the judge will have to explain why they can’t rely on it.

As for Internet filtering – do we really want to go down the same path as repressive regimes such as China and Australia?

Next up was Robert Lithgow, QC. For a start, he was hilarious and if I could afford him I’d hire him as an after dinner speaker. Opening remark: “The law of contempt is buggered.”

He went on and made a number of points:

  • Who cares what people say about judges? Scandalising the courts is an out of date concept.
  • The media companies are capitalists who are only interested in scandal for the sake of money. Their public oversight role is being taken by bloggers.
  • We need to accept what’s happening. In the case where the police shot a man wielding a golf club, the Internet meant that everyone got to have an opinion but the courts still got to decide the verdict.
  • Judges already need to confront the biases and knowledge of jurors, the Internet doesn’t change that.

Brent Edwards, journalist, made some defense of the media companies but basically agreed with the rest of the panel.

There was then a general discussion and these issues came up:

  • Shouldn’t we just broadcast trials over the Internet?
  • If we want to have suppression and contempt, there needs to be a way for people to find out what information is suppressed so they won’t be in contempt. The Law Commission report also noted this.
  • Clive from Fairfax expressed the view that they can’t just be money-grubbers as they lost money last year.
  • If we set up treaties with other countries to support NZ court orders, will we have to honour orders from the most repressive countries in the world?

In summary, the panel discussion seemed much closer to reality. The general perception is that it’s going to be easier to change our principles about trials and contempt then to turn off the Internet.