Friday, April 04, 2008

News Limited Eats One of Its Own

Robyn Wuth is a columnist at The Gold Coast Bulletin, one of News Limited's provincial papers. Today she scored a spot in the Brisbane Courier Mail, with an open letter to Queensland Premier, Anna Bligh. Headlined "Robyn appeals to the Premier" the open letter is actually a hectoring list of incoherent demands.

Before we look at the letter, it's worth taking a look at Wuth's previous form as a journalist. Our first source will be this Conference paper, "Journalists Trying to Make a Quid, Politicians Seeking Re-election and Tightrope-walking Judges: Three-ring circus or democracy in action?" by Justice Margaret McMurdo, President of the Court of Appeal of the Supreme Court of Queensland. It was presented at the ANU National Institute of Social Sciences & Law conference on confidence in the courts in February 2007.

In the paper, Justice Margaret McMurdo describes a little brou-ha-ha that resulted from a judgement made by Justice Philip McMurdo in the case of Attorney-General for the State of Queensland v Sutherland. Sutherland had served the full term of a 20 year prison sentence for crimes including manslaughter and rape. The Queensland Attorney-General wanted Sutherland kept in prison under a continuing detention order. The full 16 page judgement in is available here (PDF); it was published on September 27, 2006.

On October 6, The Gold Coast Bulletin published as its page 1 story Psycho killer next door by Robyn Wuth:

A sexually sadistic psychopath who police say is one of the most dangerous offenders ever to be released on the Gold Coast is now living in a house, pictured above, next door to a children's playground at Nerang.

... Shocked local residents have reacted with anger at the revelation the convicted killer had moved into their area without them being warned. Sutherland was convicted of the 1987 strangulation death in Bundaberg of 47 year old Paula Peters, which he said was the result of a bondage sex act gone wrong...

... A warning issued to the Gold Coast police and leaked to The Gold Coast Bulletin describes
Sutherland as a serious danger to the community (as quoted by Justice McMurdo)

Inside the paper, Wuth's report continued, under the headline "Fury at psycho killers release":

A killer diagnosed as a 'sexually sadistic psychopath' who the Government believes is so dangerous he should never be released is living at Nerang next to a children's playground.

Paul Vincent Sutherland ... is now living unsupervised in a modest three-bedroom brick home
on Nerang-Beaudesert Road.

... Shocked neighbours and nearby residents were horrified to learn a convicted killer was their new neighbour. One nearby resident who has young children burst into tears when told how close she lived to the killer. (as quoted by Justice McMurdo, emphasis added)

Right now I'm wondering who told that mother of young children about Sutherland, to elicit that tearful response. Any suggestion that it was Wuth herself would be pointless speculation - no competent tabloid journalist, whether they worked in print, radio or television, would forego the opportunity to pass on such distressing news and report the reaction.

The outcome of Wuth's report was a political controversy which drew in Acting Premier Anna Bligh. On October 7, the Gold Coast Bulletin reported, under the headline "'Terror Next Door – Nerang breathes easy after killer taken away", that Sutherland had been moved out of Nerang. In that article, Wuth and a colleague, J Gibbons, got stuck into the judge responsible for his release:

Residents were outraged Sutherland had been allowed to move into the suburb and blamed Justice Margaret McMurdo, the judge who refused the State Government appeal to keep Sutherland behind bars and granted his freedom.

Despite acknowledging Sutherland was 'more likely to reoffend', Justice McMurdo decided his release was an 'acceptable risk' to the Nerang community, while she lived safely in an exclusive inner-Brisbane suburb in her secure $2 million mansion.

The later report includes interviews with outraged local worthies: once again, routine stuff for a competent tabloid journalist in any medium. For the rest of the story, I suggest you look at Justice McMurdo's conference paper. A google search for more recent news of Sutherland turns up little dating beyond that paper - a clear case of no news is no news - good or bad. For the time being, Sutherland isn't sensation fodder.

Some of Wuth's recent op-ed columns are archived at The Gold Coast Bulletin. They make interesting reading - individually incoherent and rambling, as a whole collection capricious and inconsistent. On February 16th, Wuth had this to say about Kevin Rudd's apology to the stolen generation:

... It's insincere, it solves nothing but it was a lovely photo opportunity.

We said it to make you feel better ... did it work?


To be honest, I'm sick of all this namby-pamby boo-hooing about bloody saying sorry.


For every Aboriginal child who was stolen, another was saved, some were given a chance to change their lives.

It's a shame they refused to take it.


But I have to say sorry.

Sorry for giving you free medical care, for giving you money, for building you homes which you vandalised and destroyed and treated with contempt and we paid to fix.

Sorry for developing large farms and properties, which today feed your people.

Sorry for providing you with warm clothing made of fabric to replace the animal skins you used before.

Sorry for building roads and railway tracks between cities and building cars so that you no longer have to walk over harsh terrain.

The fact is, we won.

All right?

We came in and we killed lots of them and we took their land and we're not giving it back, unless the High Court makes us and then, frankly, the High Court will have to go.

Then on April 4, she had this to say about the Northern Territory intervention:

IT'S Australian apartheid. I hate to say I told you so ... who am I kidding? I love to say I told you so.

I've made up a special dance which I'm doing right now.

Remember when Kevin Rudd said 'I'm sorry'?

In a column that inspired a tirade, I said it was 'insincere'.

Well, I told you so.

While Kevin Rudd said sorry before the cameras and posed for the lovely pictures and puffed out his chest and preened like a proud little pigeon, behind the scenes it was a completely different story.

The Labor Government, in its wisdom, has wound back any attempt to open up the Aboriginal territories to all-comers and reinstated the permit system to ensure all communities remain closed. A better word? Hidden.

That means these communities can become taboo territory rife with sexual abuse, alcoholism and violence -- completely closed to normal scrutiny.


The bottom line is we -- all Australians -- are not allowed to go a part of our own country without permission. This is similar to the system once used in South Africa. My colleague Ken Vernon, who spent 25 years reporting on apartheid South Africa, says the same type of permit system applied to the black 'homelands' created under apartheid, with the same result.

"The black homelands became cesspools of crime, corruption and nepotism, exempt from the prying eyes of journalists, where local leaders became virtual dictators whose word was law."

Sound familiar? Is that what we want to happen here? Is that the image we want to send to the world -- Australia, the new pariah state?

As I said, incoherent and inconsistent. The only thing the two columns have in common is their ranting, self-righteous tone.

On Saturday, 29 March, Robyn Wuth's cousin, Carmel Wuth, was raped and killed by Maurizo Perini, a resident of the same aged-care facility as Ms Wuth. The Queensland Opposition is already demanding an inquiry into the killing, and how a "psycho" came to be living in an aged care facility. And that's not all they're demanding:

Opposition Leader Lawrence Springborg demanded Perini be tried in the courts rather than "disappear" into Queensland's mental health system.

Robyn Wuth is making similar demands in her open letter to Anna Bligh:

If mental illness is a defence and the accused person never faces trial, I am supposed simply to contain my rage.

I am supposed to respect his privacy. I want this man to have a fair trial, to have his day in court and for justice to be served.

I watch closely as it unfolds. A man has been charged, but what are the chances he will ever face trial? I suspect none. Already, the accused has been ordered by the courts to undergo an advanced mental health assessment in a secure facility in a Brisbane hospital.

And so it begins.

What begins is the process which might see Perini '"disappear" into Queensland's mental health system; if the courts find that Perini is unfit to plead, there obviously won't be a trial. That's a painful result for the Wuth family, but one that can't be avoided if the law is to be fair to both Carmel Wuth's family and to Maurizo Perini. Of course that's much easier for me to say from a considerable geographic distance and the position of someone who isn't personally acquainted with the Wuth family.

Human decency - of the kind Wuth and her peers expect, even demand, of their readers - dictates that we feel sorrow for Carmel Wuth and the Wuth family and outrage on their behalf. I'm having a bit of trouble with that right now, thanks to The Gold Coast Bulletin's latest article on the Carmel Wuth murder "Elderly in dark as psychos move in", by Kathleen Donaghy:

RETIREES and the elderly are moving into unregulated aged hostels and retirement villages with no idea they could be living next to somebody who is mentally ill.

The dire lack of supported accommodation on the Gold Coast has forced people with mental health problems into homes with the old and frail, sometimes with devastating consequences, according to carers and mental health advocates.

At the same time, no laws exist to prevent ordinary hostels from using 'retirement' or 'aged' in their names.

The controversy surrounding aged accommodation has come to a head after the horrific killing of Carmel Wuth, 77, who had been living in the Trinity Gardens Retirement Hostel, which is open to all ages.

What is the The Gold Coast Bulletin agitating for this time, besides a day in court for Maurizo Perini, fit to plead or not. You can get some idea from Wuth's open letter:

How can I put my faith in a system that placed a strong 36-year-old man in a retirement village, among the elderly in the first place?

A system that prefers to shove the mentally ill out the door and into the community.

A system that closed the asylums years ago.

A system that ludicrously relies on the mentally ill to self-medicate, without proper supervision and support...

Time and time again we see cases where the mentally ill are involved in horrendous crimes of violence.

This is an ignorant, fearful view of mental illness - Robyn Wuth wants all the loonies locked up in asylums where they belong, so that, in future, the aged in nursing homes and young mothers in suburbia, need never be upset by a tabloid journalist asking "How do you feel knowing that your next door neighbour is a psycho?" Never mind that in most cases of mental illness, the people who are at most risk of harm are the patients themselves, who might top themselves, or harm themselves in other ways, if unmedicated.

Towards the end of her open letter, Wuth declares:

All these years, I have interviewed so many people whose lives have been touched by tragedy.

For the first time in my life, I understand.

You'd have to have a heart of stone and a head of balsa to read that without smiling at the irony of a sensation-monger feeding herself into the sensation-mill.

Postscript: I think I'll treat myself to a hiatus now. Comments are disabled so that:
  • Anyone who wants to slag me off for being callous and ghoulish has to do it elsewhere, where I don't have to read them;

  • I don't have to spend a lot of time deleting defamatory comments about Robyn Wuth, The Gold Coast Bulletin or any other person or organisation mentioned in this post.