Attorney-General Christian Porter must not face trial by media

Chris Merritt                 29 October 2021

Published in the Australian Newspaper

Grace Tame is right. The nation does seem to be on the verge of some sort of revolution. But it’s not the sort of benign change envisaged by the Australian of the year when she addressed the National Press Club on Wednesday.

The outrageous treatment of Attorney-General Christian Porter suggests we could be entering a new dark age that erodes public trust in the media and the institutions that govern society.

When this happened in America, it created the opening that gave rise to Donald Trump. That is what the lynch mob in Canberra is toying with by seeking to bypass the rule of law in their scramble to destroy Porter.

Grace Tame’s statement that “We are on the precipice of a revolution” came just a few hours before Porter, traumatised and close to tears, appeared before a baying mob at a media conference in Perth to deny an accusation of rape dating back more than three decades.

Those parts of the media that have pursued Porter so viciously should take a hard look in the mirror. What many will see are authoritarians

Their jihad is premised on the idea the presumption of innocence does not matter. In their view, a special inquiry is needed in order to “get” Porter because he would never be convicted under the normal law.

NSW police say there is insufficient admissible evidence. But an inquiry by a coroner is incomplete. That means one independent inquiry has concluded and another is still open. Establishing a third would not just confuse matters, but would undermine the doctrine of equality before the law.

That doctrine says everyone should be subject to the normal law, regardless of who they are and regardless of the outcome. There can be no special treatment — either favourable of unfavourable.

It seems extraordinary that those pushing for an inquiry have dismissed this principle so casually. It is also puzzling that the legal profession’s peak bodies, which readily take a stand on fashionable foreign matters, have remained silent.

Even migrants sitting for the citizenship test take equality before the law seriously. The federal government provides them with a booklet that says this:

“Australians are equal under the law. The rule of law means that no person, group or religious rule is above the law. Everyone, including people who hold positions of power in the Australian community, must obey Australia’s laws. This includes government, community and religious leaders as well as business people and the police.”

Even if parts of the Canberra bubble believe there is a compelling case against Porter, their views are irrelevant. The law prevails. It would be outrageous to strip him of his rights under the law and subject him to a modern Star Chamber.

If a media frenzy can strip the attorney-general of the right to be judged by the normal law, then nobody is safe. What would then prevent a future political frenzy from targeting others and changing the rules to ensure their destruction?

If Porter is forced from office the repercussions would be immense. Just like America, many on his side of politics would see this as proof that the ABC-aligned media is their enemy, and the other side of politics believes the law is there to be avoided.

How long would it be before a Trump-like populist emerged, promising to drain the swamp of those who ignored the presumption of innocence and sought to manipulate the law?

That is the future that Labor, the Greens and their allies in the Canberra press gallery risk provoking when they call for an independent inquiry.

If they are not prepared to allow the normal institutions, such as the police, the criminal law and a coroner, to do their work they are opening the door to retribution.

Those parts of the media that have bought into this craziness need to ask themselves why they have become the subject of criticism from doyens of their own profession, such as Paul Kelly and Dennis Shanahan.

There is now a clear split in the media between those like Kelly and Shanahan, and those who see the rule of law as an inconvenience that can be ignored in order to pursue a man who, at law, has done nothing wrong.

On the same day that Porter fronted the press pack, Kelly warned in this newspaper about the danger of trial by media replacing the judgment of the legal system.

He wrote that parts of the media calling for an “independent inquiry” into the 30-year-old accusations against Porter were “clueless” about how this was supposed to work.

Shanahan wrote on Thursday that the days of “anonymous calumny” that had been directed at Porter had been “a low point in Australian politics and media behaviour”.

The confusion on the other side of this argument is deep and obvious. Peter Hartcher of The Sydney Morning Herald, one of the nation’s most prominent journalists, has accepted that an inquiry into the rape allegation is impossible.

Instead, Hartcher wants something ludicrous — an inquiry into Porter’s character.

He believes Scott Morison should call “an independent inquiry to establish whether Porter is a fit and proper person to hold such high office in the face of such a grave accusation”.

So how would that work? Would Porter bear the onus of defending his good character by proving a negative — that he did not rape a fellow teenager when he was seventeen?

If the rape allegation is impossible to prove, what possible status would it have during such an inquiry? Would it draw on the precedent from The Castle and simply become “the vibe” of the thing?