Arrest of “teen party host” highlights stupidity of law

Photograph of male youths with pixelated faces

Yesterday a Melbourne teenager was charged with creating a public nuisance and producing child pornography. Reuters tells us he “became a controversial media star after a wild party at his parents’ house became a near riot, forcing police to call in a helicopter and the dog squad”. Hands up if you think you know his name.

Now, keep your hands up if you’re completely bloody sure you know his name.

OK, hands down.

Yet again we see how Australia’s laws have failed to adapt to the Internet age.

Everybody and their dog, globally, has been reporting the rise to fame of glamorous Melbourne socialite Corey Worthington Delaney. I’ve written two essays already [1, 2], and this third one probably won’t be the last. My friends at Crikey published The Corey Timeline yesterday (republished by Peter Black too, if the Crikey original is behind their paywall).

Now, under Victorian law, as in many other democracies, the media cannot identify minors charged with criminal offences. Nor can they identify who’s brought before the children’s court. Fair enough. Once upon a time we all agreed that youthful indiscretions shouldn’t mar our reputation for life.

So now we have the ludicrous situation where National Nine News and The Age and everyone else is talking about “a 16-year-old boy” as if we haven’t noticed a flood of media reports about a specific, named 16yo who — in an amazing coincidence — held a wild party on the weekend where the police were called, including a helicopter and the dog squad.

Happens all the time. Could well be someone else.

Even before the Internet this law was flawed. Radio and TV broadcasts were ephemeral (at least until we all got recorders), and newspapers could stop mentioning a name. But that couldn’t prevent you popping down the library to check last week’s edition. And it couldn’t stop people talking about what they already knew.

Today, thanks to blogs, Twitter and Facebook and the rest, even casual gossip is on the public record. Forever. Even if a web page is removed, we can still recover it thanks to Google’s cache and the Internet archive’s Wayback Machine.

You can’t take the piss out of the swimming pool.

Yet those tireless, dedicated soldiers of the mainstream media trudge through the ritual, typing “the youth, who cannot be named for legal reasons” and pixelating photos — even though we can still recognise faces we know.

So what do we do here? Do we ban all media identification of minors? Or just accept that The Truth Is Out There and drop the charade? Maybe we can do the latter and make it illegal to discriminate on the basis of anything we did as minors.

[Note: The pixelated image is for illustration purposes only. I pixelated an image of Corey Worthington Delaney (right) and a friend taken from Channel 7. I have no idea whether he was one of the youths arrested yesterday. How could I possibly know? The police have not said.]

15 Replies to “Arrest of “teen party host” highlights stupidity of law”

  1. @Michael Meloni: And indeed, you can’t comment on the charges, you can only write factually about what is said by the police, or by the players in a courtroom. The legal term is sub judice.

    In law, sub judice, Latin for “under judgement,” means that a particular case or matter is currently under trial or being considered by a judge or court. The term may be used synonymously with “the present case” or “the case at bar” by some lawyers.

    In England and Wales, New Zealand, Australia, India and Canada it is generally considered inappropriate to publicly comment on cases sub judice and can even be an offence in itself, leading to contempt of court proceedings. This is particularly true in criminal cases, where publicly discussing cases sub judice may constitute interference with due process.

    In the United States, there are First Amendment concerns about stifling the right of free speech which prevent such tight restrictions on comments sub judice. However, there are still protections for criminal defendants and those convicted in an atmosphere of a circus have had their convictions overturned for a fairer trial.

    Journalists and media producers like myself are trained in this stuff very early on in our careers. The blogosphere is not necessarily as well-educated.

  2. Interestingly, my criminal lawyer friend tells me that arguably the Reuters quote breaches the law: “…contains any particulars likely to lead to the identification…” My emphasis. Interesting.

  3. “You can’t take the piss out of the swimming pool” is such a great phrase.

    The media wants us to feel constantly shocked, scared, worried, etc. And then someone like Mr. Corey comes along, and journalists everywhere act appalled, for the sake of representing an audience who (for once) have a clearly defined suburban menace.

    I liken it to the RSPCA. It’s much easier to focus on cats and dogs, since nobody wants to hear about the many thousands of factory farmed pigs spending most of their lives in hellish cages no bigger than their artificially fattened bodies. You’d get better karma eating a handful of maggots.

    Mr. Corey is a much preferred media target than, say, genocide in Sudan, and a much more manageable quantity for the police than, say, a gay-hate attack in Surry Hills despite having footage of the attackers, which nobody sees a profit in publishing. The footage had to be dragged out of the police after a month of asking.

  4. The trouble with the “truth is out there” defence is that it then becomes a huge incentive to invade privacy. Alice finds out some fact about Bob and puts it in a public, but not widely known, place. Alice then notifies Carol, who gets the scoop and publishes freely based on the prior disclosure of the information. Carol issues a gift to Alice for bringing this information to her attention. Alice and Carol win, Bob loses.

    Personally I’d be more inclined to regulate the identification of all minors, provided of course that the minors can be educated to avoid inappropriately disclosing their identities themselves.

  5. I noticed the same thing with a (decidely!) non-minor just before xmas. The erstwhile A-G of the Solomon Islands. The media reported all the extradition proceedings, but as soon as he was in court, his name was dropped — for legal reasons.

    Ex-politician remanded in custody

    How many other “ex politician” “Australian lawyer” “recently extradited from Honiara” “sex crimes in Vanuatu” do ya reckon there are???

    Combination with the lowest denominator in all those is probably “lawyer in Honiara”, but that is beside the point…

  6. Back on Corey though for a moment; who is going to get arrested for his nipple piercing? Law may be different in Vic, but I have been led to believe that a non-ear body piercing on a “minor” is statutory assault or some such…

    Lawyer friends have any comments here?

    Is that an urban myth, or was it a “proposed change” that never got up?

  7. Photograph of Daily Telegraph front page, 17 January 2008: [Name] Child Porn Charge

    Well, if my lawyer friend reckons the Reuters story was over the line, then this morning’s Daily Telegraph crossed it and kept on running. Their page one story today blasted the headline “[Name] Child Porn Charge” — though as I look this evening the online version‘s headline is a tamer “Week-long party ends in charges”.

    Crikey‘s Greg Barns writes:

    Every media organisation in Australia knows this fundamental rule: when a person under the age of 18 is charged they are entitled to anonymity.

    This age old rule is reflected in Victoria by section 534 of the Children, Youth and Families Act 2005 which says that no person shall publish any particulars of a proceeding before the Children’s Court or any other court for that matter, which is likely to lead to the identification of the child involved in the proceeding. You can apply to get the permission of the President of the Children’s Court to get that ban lifted.

    The fine for breaching this provision is $5000 if you are a corporation like a newspaper, or $1000 if you are an individual.

    You know, if I were David Pemberthy editing the Tele, I reckon my risk calculation would be that the risk of a mere $5000 was peanuts compared with the potential sales spike.

    Barns reckons he knows where the blame lies too:

    The Victoria Police are not blameless in this saga either. Charging a child with possessing child pornography, when the evidence is simply a bunch of images of naked teenage girls playing Twister at a party, is a potentially a serious waste of taxpayers money and resources. How many 15-year-olds have pictures of their naked 14-year-old girlfriends on their phone or computer? A lot, is the answer.

    I bow to his knowledge about what’s on teenagers’ phones — but yes, naked does not equal pornography. TV adverts showing naked babies advertising toilet paper is proof enough of that!

    @Rhys: Glad to be of service! However I don’t think young Corey will be serving fries and soft drinks any time soon. I doubt any employer would trust him with the cash till.

    @Bernard: AFAIK that law about piercings for minors was mooted but never made it to parliament. It’d be a state-by-state thing though, and I am not an expert.

  8. The Advertiser ran with a very similar front page to the Daily Telegraph.

    They can do that because the law in Victoria only affects publication in Victoria. I assume there was a different version of that story for copies of the paper being sold in Victoria.

    The internet version of the story was worded to comply, and was very careful to be vague enough so as not to breach the spirit of the law. Basically it said “One youth who attended (the party) has been charged.

    Same thing happens with suppression orders, and the prohibition on publishing the names of defendants in certain cases at committal stage.

    Interstate media can happily report all the suppressed details.

  9. @Simon Slade: Thanks for that, Sir! I have been careful with my wording since charges were laid against the Melbourne teenagers. However I reckon it’s still an odd concept when previous posts (like the millions of others online) are still there for the world to see and trivial to find.

    I find the idea of going back and editing the record of the past a bit too disturbing. That’s exactly what Winston Smith did for a living in Nineteen Eighty-Four.

Comments are closed.