The Examiner devoted pages to this story, including editorial comment drawing direct links between the vandalism and the organized opposition to the mill. Then on Monday 12 October they printed a letter from former Premier Paul Lennon ( Here ), in which he said, among other reckless and unsubstantiated accusations, that “anyone who seriously believes this latest attack against John (Gay) and his family was not orchestrated by the anti-pulp mill campaigners is kidding themselves”.
The Examiner ( Here )also attempted to link the vandalism with the organized anti-pulp mill demonstration in Beaconsfield a week earlier, referring on several occasions in their coverage of vandalism to the demonstration as “fiery”, a complete misrepresentation of the truth, and suggesting incitement from the demonstration as a link without any evidence whatsoever to support the angle of their reportage.

This has been nothing less than a deliberately contrived witch hunt, a smear campaign by the editorial staff of the Launceston Examiner. No doubt they feel aggrieved that they have been stymied in this. Perhaps they concluded that the police would be unable to make a quick arrest, and that they would be able to follow the course they had taken, casting suspicion where none was warranted, and giving credence to the unfounded.

Last week, when the Examiner deliberately misrepresented the resolution of the long-running SLAPP suit Gunns had brought against Dr Frank Nicklason, many people, including me, concluded that the standard of their reporting had hit a new low that would be difficult to surpass, but that was a mistake.

This is worse. It is gutter journalism at best. But there is a prima facie case that in some respects this could be worse than just gutter journalism.

When Lennon wrote his letter to the Launceston Examiner stating unequivocally that damage to John Gay’s property was a planned tactic “orchestrated” by organized opponents of the pulp mill, he knew, and the Examiner knew, that the incident was being investigated by the police. They all knew that a criminal investigation was taking place, and they knew that at that time no arrest had been made. They had no way of knowing who was responsible for the graffiti or for the “smoke bomb”, as it has been called.

The investigation had implicated no member of any anti-pulp mill community group, yet Lennon said that “vigilantism has been part of the tactics of anti-pulp mill activists for some time”.

Lennon’s letter is a seminal document indeed. It has more than the chill of demagogy, and the chill of the witch hunt. It has the chill of the abandonment of due process law. On what basis has Lennon the right to accuse without evidence, to accuse before a police investigation has completed its work, to accuse before trial, to accuse before due process of law?

A seminal letter indeed.

One question which should be asked is whether Lennon, the Examiner (and others, such as Gutwein, Here , Here ) have interfered with due process of law. A related question which should be asked is whether they have breached the common law convention of sub judice as it operates in the Australian judicial system, either in technical terms under the law or in its spirit, as it would apply under any reasonable understanding of natural justice.

According to one interpretation, the sub judice rule is that the publication must create a real risk of serious prejudice to the administration of justice. But whatever the answers to questions about due process under the law, in non-legal lay terms this still constitutes an appalling contempt of the justice system.

In more general terms as they relate to the responsible role of the media in a democratic society and freedom of speech, there can be no doubt that what has occurred in the pages of the Examiner over the last few days amounts to “reckless, unsubstantiated accusations, as well as demagogic attacks on the character of political adversaries”, which is one dictionary definition of McCarthyism.

In 1953, when few in the US mainstream media had the courage to confront McCarthyism, former President Harry S Truman attacked the Eisenhower administration for allowing McCarthy to propagate “the corruption of truth, the abandonment of the due process law… and the use of the unfounded accusation against any citizen”.

Then in 1954, when McCarthy tried to argue without evidence in open Senate hearings that the army was riddled with subversion, the army’s lawyer responded in this way:

“Have you no sense of decency, sir, at long last? Have you left no sense of decency?”

The Examiner’s miserable reportage of the Gay vandalism has no shred of decency. If the line pursued by the Examiner, Lennon and others had been able to take its course without the “inconvenience” of a police investigation resulting in an arrest, there is no doubt that the witch hunt would have continued.

The Examiner has reached the end of the road. It cannot sink lower. Not only is it irresponsible, but it is a threat to the fundamental principles which underpin basic democratic freedoms. It is an enemy of the true values pertaining to the ethical and moral behaviour of the fourth estate within our society. It has betrayed not only its own position of trust within its community, but it has betrayed the community as well. As for Paul Lennon, his spiteful and irresponsible correspondence is a chilling reminder of the events of 2007 and the abandonment of due process that occurred then to ram through the Pulp Mill Assessment Act.

Lennon’s letter is a chilling reminder to the complacent, to the ignorant, to the timid, to the politically disenfranchised and marginalized – but especially to those who would say “it doesn’t concern me”- that it is more important than ever in Tasmania today to stand up for basic democratic principles under the law.

Lennon’s letter is a warning to us all, a warning that we are closer to the law of the jungle, to the abrogation of due process as a matter of course in Tasmania, closer to conviction before investigation, before evidence and before trial, than we might care to admit.

Peter Henning