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Media criticism from an Ombudsman

By Steven | December 6, 2007

Some damning quotes about the performance of the media from Ombudsman Mel Smith’s report into the justice sector:

The criminal justice system is complex and difficult. Unfortunately the rhetoric that we hear in the media and elsewhere almost daily tends to convey an impression that there is some simple answer to crime and criminal justice. That is very far from the reality. There is no simple answer. There is no silver bullet.


I express my concern in the report about how the issues of crime and criminal justice have become highly politicised and often the subject of uninformed and superficial public and media comment. There has been, and continues to be, a lack of constructive and clear headed public debate about the issues. As a consequence there is an absence of rational decision making based on any critical examination of the issues.


Criminal justice has unfortunately reached the stage where national debate is difficult. When an incident occurs the responses from the public, politicians and the media tend to polarise. media coverage of events is often extensive and frequently seeks, with minimal investigation, to ascribe culpability on to an aspect of the system.


The total number of offences reported to the police annually has remained reasonably static for the past 10 years. In spite of some public and media comments, crime is not running amok and there seems little need to deploy large numbers of the extra police into active patrol policing. I do not intend to dwell on what the media have described as Corrections scandals (see, eg One News, 30 June 2007) other than to note that this yet again illustrates a recurrent theme.


The criminal justice sector has, all too often, been in the news because of some mistakes. Such mistakes, however minor and isolated in themselves, often receive considerable (sometimes sensational) publicity and are portrayed as an accumulation of systemic incompetence. As a consequence, it is not unnatural for individuals who work within the system to adopt a cautious approach and ensure that they have complied with “the rules” should any of their decisions make the headlines on radio or television or feature on page 1 of the next day’s newspaper. A policy of risk aversion is eminently sensible in these circumstances, although it might not always necessarily be in the best interests of either the offender or the effective and efficient management of the criminal justice system.



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