Fuzzy Feedback: How TV journalism may be impacting our laws with questionable consequences


Words || Katelyn Free

I love Sarah Ferguson. She has serious earned real-estate in the professional girl crush section of my heart. The show she hosts, FOUR CORNERS, and other investigative journalism TV shows, provide an important pillar in the current media-scape. They create confronting journalism but without the obvious shock value tactics of many other television news shows (read: A CURRENT AFFAIR). But what these programs also provide is an increasingly popular blueprint for legislative reform.

In February 2013 FOUR CORNERS debuted ‘Punch Drunk’, a piece on the growth of alcohol related violence. It featured the assault of Sam Ford, a teenager left severely disabled after being attacked on a night out. This episode played into already mounting public outcry after the death of Thomas Kelly in 2012, and later that year, the death of Daniel Christie solidified an overwhelming media push that established the phenomenon of ‘one punch’ terror and put New South Wales into crisis mode.

What followed was swift legislative reform. THE CRIMES AND OTHER LEGISLATION AMENDMENT (ASSAULT AND INTOXICATION) ACT 2014, was introduced. It created a mandatory minimum sentence of eight weeks for crimes of assault involving alcohol. In just over a week from its announcement, the original bill had been passed through both houses of parliament and put into force. This was without any consultation from the New South Wales Law Reform Commission or other expert groups, and without any significant amendments.

The Act’s creation of a mandatory minimum sentence is controversial and goes against the fundamental principles of the justice system. Removing judicial discretion is a dangerous standard to set. It can impose tough sentences upon offenders when it genuinely may not be in society’s best interest to do so. The lack of consideration into the depth of the Act’s effect upon the core values of the justice system reflect that the law was passed while being knee deep in public pressure, continually fuelled by intense media coverage.

Passing laws that have profound consequences upon individual lives should not be done lightly. And definitely not in the space of a week.

A similar effect was produced in February 2015, with FOUR CORNERS’ program ‘Making a Killing’, an investigation into the greyhound racing industry in Australia. It exposed live baiting practices, that triggered public outcry at the animal cruelty taking place. The following month, former NSW Premier Mike Baird launched an inquiry into the greyhound racing industry, and in July of 2016 announced that the sport would be banned in its entirety.

This was only one month after the findings of the inquiry were delivered.

No less than nine months later, Baird backflipped on the ban. After proper consideration of the impact that this ban would have in culling an entire industry, and the thousands of jobs which would be lost, he admitted he had made the ‘wrong call’.

These are not the only instances of media having a powerful effect on legislative action. The severe dulling down of the mining tax in 2012 and the repeal of the carbon tax in 2014 were instances of legislative action being triggered by severe media pressure.

The mining tax could have softened the economic recession that was triggered by the end of the mining boom. And Australia could have more of an Ozone layer if the carbon tax had been kept as a proactive way of tackling climate change. But alas, a few well-produced advertisements in prime time, one media storm later and here we are. Broke and slowly drowning.

Shireen Daft is an Associate Lecturer at Macquarie Law School, specialising across various areas of law, including criminal and social justice. When asked about the effect she sees media having on the law, she noted that media influence ‘is not inherently good or bad.’ But in the current news climate, the media ‘tends to focus on the ‘sexy’ stories’, including ‘sudden, public and isolated incidents of crime’ as opposed to more entrenched societal issues.

She observed in relation to the assault and intoxication law reform, that the story of ‘a young man being hit after having a fun night out and losing his life sells better than the statistics related to family violence.’ This meant that ‘despite the fact that non-domestic violent assaults have been on a steady decline (and had been on this trajectory prior to the one punch laws being introduced)’ intense media coverage meant that there were swift changes in the law ‘whereas a similar groundswell for change has not happened with family violence.’
Daft explained the issues with this highly responsive reform approach, stating that when legislation, such as the ‘one punch’ laws are rushed through, ‘they are not subject to the same processes normally involved – community consultation, careful review of the impact on proposed changes to all relevant stakeholders, and considered evidence-based laws being introduced’. There is a potential upside, where these reforms can provide a platform for social change, but ‘if it is doing so at the cost of attention to issues that are a far bigger issue in our society…then the media and resultant knee-jerk politics are probably doing more harm than good’.

It’s a given that the law should reflect the ethics and concerns of the society it seeks to serve. But how these ethics and concerns are being reflected to government bodies is no longer taking place through polite senate submissions. FOUR CORNERS and other like programs are playing hard and fast with scandalous exposés and demanding immediate responses. And what’s emerging is an increasing pattern of heated media outcry and shotgun legislative reform. The public pressure these programs entice and the whirlwind they create, generate a dangerous climate to make major law reform.

Sarah Ferguson, I love you and your perfectly groomed hair, I really do. But I think we (and the Australian government) need to take a break for a bit.