Is it just me, or has cop-in-charge Mick Keelty been acting a little… unhinged ever since the Mohammed Haneef case?
Exhibit A for the prosecution: Keelty's address to the Sydney Institute last night, in which he criticised the media for reporting on high-profile terrorism cases and subjecting the powers-that-be to rigorous and sometimes unfriendly scrutiny. You know the drill. I think it's known in some circles as "doing their job".
Keelty's complaint is that the media have been so busy reporting on cases such as the Haneef prosecution, airing facts in the public sphere, humanising the would-be defendants, and so forth, that the judicial process doesn't stand a chance. Which is just a little rich on a few different levels. Namely:
1. Time and again, the media has wielded its opinion-making power in a way that is most favourable to the public prosecutors. I'm looking at you, Murdoch press. One hardly needs to open the Daily Telegraph to encounter an example of journalists and editorial writers whipping up a public frenzy against the minor recalcitrant du jour. Due process? Forget it. Keelty might be disappointed that this handy little coin has a flip side, but he can hardly claim to be surprised.
2. Er, the burden of proof rests on the prosecution. Innocent until proven guilty, as the legal phrase has it. The media are supposed to cover criminal cases as though the defendant is innocent. Remember? If the cops can't make the case for the defendant's guilt in the face of a little media scrutiny, they can't make the case at all.
3. Re. the Haneef case: it's been so long that perhaps our collective memory of the events is a little hazy. So, a little refresher on Haneef-case chronology. First, the AFP themselves released highly selective excerpts from the interview, the cumulative effect of which was to lie about Haneef's association with terror suspects. Then, Haneef's lawyer, Stephen "Atticus Finch" Keim, released the whole transcript to set the record straight. Now, it's understandable that the AFP were embarrassed by the release of the full transcript, in all its computer-illiterate, geographically shaky, Ramadan-ignorant glory. But that's hardly the media's fault. Is it really Keelty's contention that justice would've been better served had the media's knowledge of the case been based solely on AFP-approved "facts"?
4. While we're on the subject of extraneous bodies influencing judicial matters, how about a little shout-out to then Immigration Minister, Kevin Andrews, who, at the behest of the Australian Federal Police (yes, that AFP) cancelled Haneef's visa, thus effectively overriding the decision of the judiciary to grant Haneef bail? Or are we not supposed to be concerned about that kind of extrajudicial interference?
5. If you purport to be concerned, as Keelty does, about the erosion of public confidence in your institution, you're probably not doing your cause any favours by waxing totalitarian. So rather than calling for "a halt to criticism of public institutions", how about you focus on cleaning up your own act? The media can only report on what happens, after all.
Attempting to preserve secrecy is not, of course, an uncommon reaction to the threat of terrorism. But it is an irrational one. The seriousness of the charge lends more, not less, weight to the importance of due process; and the heightened powers of the police render it more, not less, important that the media scrutinise that process. Confidence in public institutions can only be achieved if the workings of those institutions are exposed to the public. In the Haneef case, the AFP and Andrews failed the accountability test miserably. But that is cause for greater accountability, not easier tests.
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UPDATE: Writing in Crikey for us subscriber-freaks, Greg Barns has a similar take: "The idea that Keelty and his colleagues should be allowed to brief editors of media outlets on a secret basis in terrorism investigations, while at the same time preventing lawyers acting on behalf of those being investigated speaking to the media, is so absurd, that one wonders if this man has really lost the plot."