Suppression order a free kick for online media

Opinion from Steve Ahern

The supression order preventing publication of the details in a high profile court case this week has given a free kick to new media giants Google, Facebook and Twitter while tying the hands of responsible media, who are prevented from covering the story.

A Victorian Court suppressed details of the case because… well, actually I can’t tell you the because.

Talk radio presenters this morning were frustrated by the suppression order.

Neil Mitchell told his 3AW listeners:

“Today I will find frustrating… It’s all about secrecy…
“I woke up this morning with messages from many friends telling me about a well known figure, I was asked did I know… Yes, I know, but I am prevented from telling you…
“It is not possible to go into details. I am restricted in telling you who and what is involved and I’m restricted from telling you why I can’t tell you…”

 Mitchell concluded by saying he thinks “it is crucial that details are made public as quickly as possible.”

2GB’s Ray Hadley said:

“It’s the nation’s biggest story but we are prevented on reporting on the matter…
“It’s high time the government and the judiciary confronted the advent of increasing coverage of news on the internet…
“It’s no good telling the major news organisations you can’t talk about it when wherever I want to go today I will find out exactly what it is all about without anyone in the mainstream media talking about it…
“People will read and start reproducing the information on social media. By the time we get to the weekend 90% of the population will know… via the world wide web, despite the orders that are in place and it seems stupid we can’t talk about it…”

Hadley said he would not break the suppression order and discuss details of the case because he “didn’t want to spend Christmas in jail.”

The court says it has has good reason to suppress details of this case. I accept that.

But let’s level the playing field.

The Australian media have acted responsibly. It seems Google, Twitter and Facebook have not.

When I woke up today I saw several mentions of the case in my Facebook feed, mostly retweeting stories from foreign publications.

When I checked Twitter trends at lunch time today there were about 10 million tweets about this matter and it was trending.

When I searched Google I found details of the case in several Amercian publications, including the Washington Post.

Did the court do its job in informing these sites of the suppression order? If not, why not?

If the court did inform the sites of the suppression order then these sites are knowingly in contempt of the court. I would expect the bailiffs to be delivering contempt of court notices to these platforms (should we call them publications?) and to be enforcing them with the same vehermence as they would if the information was published on air or in an Australian newspaper.

I hope they are.

If not, these platforms/publications are getting a free kick at the expanse of responsible media. What’s more, the court is teaching Australians that they should go to social media and search sites to find out about court news, not to responsible media.

And what about the individuals who posted news about this matter on their social media pages? They are in contempt of court. Will court staff be sending them all fines? There will be tens of thousands of fines to send, but surely if the courts want to enforce their orders in this new media age, then they must take such action.

If courts are serious about their suppression orders then the playing field should be levelled and social media and search engines must face the same sanctions as would responsible Australian media outlets if they broke the rules.

While the government, the ACCC and the ACMA ponder over the rules covering new and old media, this is a court matter that is very different from the debates going on about rules covering ‘platforms’ compared with the rules covering publishers and broadcasters. 

It’s simple – if you spread news about the suppressed matter then you are in contempt. So let’s see the court enforce its belief that the matter should be suppressed. Of lift the suppression order and allow responsible media to compete equally with social and search media.



About the Author

Steve is the founding editor of this website.

He is a former broadcaster, programmer, senior executive and trainer who now runs his own company Ahern Media & Training Pty Ltd.

He is a regular writer and speaker about trends in media. More info here.




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