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Law and media - a need for a better dialogue

By Michael Kirby - posted Wednesday, 15 May 2002

Law and the media need not be in conflict. In fact, the media and its technology have the potential to reinforce law and to strengthen justice.

For example, it is now more difficult to hide the acts of tyrants, the cruelty of war, the deceitfulness of leaders and the abuses of human rights that once were cloaked because we simply did not know. The fall of the Berlin Wall was a by-product of new information technology. It became impossible to closet millions of people behind a physical wall that was so easily penetrated by telecommunications.

So it is with the remaining autocratic societies and with unjust laws at home. As more young people gain access to the Internet, it will be impossible to control their minds by the techniques of the past. The resulting diversity of opinion will defend freedom.


Most Australians receive their knowledge of the world and of their own country from newspapers, television and radio outlets. Yet sitting in the High Court in Canberra, I cannot but notice the lack of attention to the decisions of the Court.

My reaction is not one of hurt feelings. As a judge of nearly 30 years, I am beyond that. But the Australian Constitution envisages a system of government with all power deriving ultimately from the people. It therefore contemplates an informed electorate that has the means to keep in touch with important events that concern all aspects of government.

Government is performed, for the most part, in Parliament, in the ministries or in the bureaucracy. Yet important questions affecting the Constitution and the legal principles, by which we live together, are also handed down by the High Court every other week. With few exceptions, these important decisions sink without trace.

Last year, the American trial of Timothy McVeigh attracted much more attention in the Australian media than did any of the decisions of our courts. The global dimension of multimedia and information technology has meant that, to a large extent, Australia has become a segment of the media of the United States.

A few years ago several of the major news outlets employed dedicated journalists who covered accurately the decisions of the High Court. Today, virtually no newspaper and no television network has such a special correspondent.

The result is that the news coverage of the High Court is largely handed over to political correspondents based in Canberra. When, occasionally, they glance down the hill from Parliament House to the High Court, they do not adjust their spectacles.


All too often they think that our work can be reduced to the banalities of personality conflicts. The hard yards of understanding, analysing and constructively criticising the decisions of the High Court are, it seems, often beyond their interest or talent.

To some extent the blame for this neglect must be shared by judges themselves. Their reasons are detailed. They make few concessions to easy communication. The reasons are in writing, not oral. There are no summaries. No interviews. No press conferences. No "angles" or "spins".

Should our courts make it easier, so as to reach out, through modern technology, to the people whom they serve? Should our highest court, like the Supreme Court of Canada, approve a dedicated television channel, which covers the arguments and decisions of the top judges?

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This article was first published in The Sydney Morning Herald on 29/04/02.

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About the Author

The Hon Michael Kirby AC CMG is a former justice of the High Court of Australia.

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