In her decision this week to postpone the trial of the man accused of sexually assaulting Brittany Higgins, ACT Chief Justice Lucy McCallum admitted she was wrong to trust the press.
There is a right way and a wrong way to report on criminal proceedings, and to make public comment on matters the subject of criminal proceedings. The right way is as simple as it is well known: be mindful of the impact of your reporting and remember to insert the magic word "alleged".
In fact, it is so simple and so well known that Ms Wilkinson herself tweeted in August last year: "... can I implore everyone to respect what's in play here ... passing judgement could have dire consequences for the outcome of any trial."
So why, then, on Sunday night - in her acceptance speech for winning a Silver Logie for her interview with Ms Higgins in February 2021 - would Ms Wilkinson go against warnings given to her just days earlier by the ACT Director of Public Prosecutions, Shane Drumgold?
Unsurprisingly, the award and the content of the speech was a hot topic. The problem? The public commentary provoked by the speech "completely obliterated" the line between an allegation and a finding of guilt, the judge found. And the consequences were as grave, as Ms Wilkinson herself had foreshadowed.
The scale of the fallout of Ms Wilkinson's speech cannot and should not be underestimated. The consequences of her actions need to be understood in real, human, terms. Justice delayed is justice denied - for all involved.
First, for Mr Lehrmann. Having been a criminal defence lawyer for over 10 years, I see firsthand how debilitating it is to have serious criminal allegations hanging over your head. Mr Lehrmann is entitled to the presumption of innocence, and he must be tried by a jury. ACT law does not afford him the right to elect to be tried by a judge alone.
Second, for Ms Higgins. Instead of preparing to attend court to give evidence next week - over three years after she says she was sexually assaulted and almost 18 months since going public with her allegations - she now must wait a further several months for the trial to begin.
Third, for the wider criminal justice system. The delay has wasted valuable resources of the ACT Supreme Court. Other trials and sentence matters in the court were listed on later dates because of the time set aside for this trial. Accused persons who are currently in custody have had to wait longer for their matters to be finalised. Complainants and witnesses in those other matters have experienced similar delays. Tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of taxpayer dollars will have been spent in recent weeks and months preparing for this trial to run. Witnesses, no doubt feeling immense pressure at the thought of giving evidence in this trial, also now face further delays.
Media reporting of serious criminal allegations is not the problem here. It plays an important role in the administration of justice and the principle of open justice. And the reality is that the correct formulation is so simple and so well known that all it takes is a little self-discipline. Even when in the throes of self-promotion, it's just not that hard to note the distinction between a proven offence and a mere allegation. So when even this basic distinction cannot be observed and the result is the failure to respect even the most fundamental principles of the presumption of innocence, procedural fairness and the right of an accused to a fair trial, something has gone seriously wrong.
Perhaps Ms Wilkinson should have listened to fellow journalist Samantha Maiden at the Walkley Awards earlier this year - because it turns out you can accept an award for reporting on Ms Higgins' allegations without trampling on an accused person's right to a fair trial. In her acceptance speech after winning the Gold Walkley, Ms Maiden said: "... this is a matter that is before the courts. And as flawed and as imperfect as the justice system is, you know, I believe in it, and I don't want to say anything that would impact on that."
If Ms Wilkinson wasn't keen on copying that approach, she could have taken the sage advice of her husband, Peter FitzSimons, who told a Twitter user less than three weeks ago: "Pull your bloody head in, dickhead. This is [a] serious rape trial about to begin."
Or saying nothing at all; the approach Network 10 is now taking. "In light of the continuing proceedings, it would be inappropriate to comment further at this time."
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