News & Current Affairs

By Carley Hitchins


Where is William?  – on the news:  the danger of considerable media coverage of a police investigation.

The disappearance of William Tyrrell has arguably attracted the most media attention of any police investigation in Australia since the death of Azaria Chamberlain.

The story of the toddler who went missing in September 2014 has captured the attention of Australians, and the world. But what impact does the level of media attention and the use or misuse of that attention by authorities have on the ultimate fairness or legitimacy of any legal proceedings that may come from it?

The investigation into William’s disappearance was ramped up again recently when police received new evidence.  It is now, sadly, a search for his remains with there being essentially no hope that William will be found alive.

The matter has attracted additional media attention recently when William’s foster parents were charged last week in relation to an unrelated alleged assault of a child at their home in Sydney. The foster parents have not been named and a non-publication order also restricts reporting on the nature of the allegations. Before they were charged, there was a great deal of media attention on an AVO being applied for by police against them.

The Prime Minister, NSW Premier and NSW Police Minister (to name a few), have been patting the police on their collective backs for *doing their job* in the recent investigation and whilst any abuse against a child is abhorrent and likely to cause significant public upset and/or outcry, in circumstances where William’s foster parents vehemently deny any involvement in his disappearance, have never been charged with any offence in relation to it and have not yet entered pleas in respect of the unrelated matter; the information leaking like a sieve in this case, has undoubtedly jeopardised their right to a fair trial – both in the unrelated proceedings and if any charge were ever proffered in relation to William’s disappearance.

One question that no one has been asking is how did this information get out? Given there is a non-publication order in place, the only way the media could have been made aware of the AVO or the charges for the unrelated matter against William’s foster parents is through the foster parents themselves or the police.

There’s a fair chance William’s foster parents didn’t leak to the media themselves…

Disgraced former chief detective in the William Tyrell case, Gary Jubelin, recently spoke to 2GB Radio and expressed concern over the public nature of the investigation and the timing of information being released. Mr Jubelin warned people to be cautious of the way we look at this case, referring to the recent investigation into the disappearance of Cleo Smith where the country turned into armchair detectives accusing her parents of having some involvement in her disappearance and eventually turned out to be wrong.

There are nightly news stories on pieces of fabric and fibres being found as police continue their search and investigation. Again, the possible sources of such information are limited.  The public ventilation of evidence as it comes to light is marred with danger and disregard for the protections built into the rules of evidence. The rules of evidence are nuanced and have inbuilt to them tests for fairness and probity. The fact is, in any criminal trial, several pieces of evidence are deemed not admissible for various reasons. The public airing of such material well before any trial (or even charges) seriously risks the erosion of a fair trial.

The right to a fair trial is a fundamental principle in our justice system which is expressed in Article 14 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and provides that ‘All persons shall be equal before the courts and tribunals. In the determination of any criminal charge against him, or of his rights and obligations in a suit at law, everyone shall be entitled to a fair and public hearing by a competent, independent, and impartial tribunal established by law…’

But if the case unfolds in the media, by the time a case gets to court, the supposedly impartial jury (or even the judge) may have already heard information and allegations (not admissible by court standards) that have caused them to seriously prejudice the parties.

The saturation of negative media in the lead-up to an accused person entering the dock as a defendant is a dangerous reality and in high profile cases, 24/7 media and the rise of social media make it dangerous to assume that a trial is fair. Only a deluded optimist could think it likely William’s foster parents would get a fair trial in either the potential matter involving William or the unrelated child.

It is clear, in the William Tyrell case, that police have made the unusual, strategic decision to feed information to the public via the media. Whilst this may advance their investigation, the very real risk of reversing the presumption of innocence and right to a fair trial is too dangerous and should it not be used as an investigative tool.