Snr Constable Adam Kite of Wollongong highway patrol Tests a driver. Photo: David Tease
I was before the courts on a drink-driving charge this week. Given that The Canberra Times once used to publish the names of all persons dealt with for such offences, it seemed only fair that my shame and humiliation be paraded before the community, even though now we publish only the names of the newsworthy.
A gossip columnist speculated this week that we had dropped the drink-driving list a decade or so ago because some bigwig, probably at the paper itself, had been caught. That's not so; over the years indeed, several senior Canberra Times people, even an editor, were caught and had their name recorded in the same manner as anyone else. So did any number of judges, ministers of the Crown, politicians, senior public servants, policemen, members of the clergy and religious orders (though not, as far as I can recall, any bishops or nuns), doctors, lawyers, plumbers and jailers. Only one person was ever to be excepted, and that by court order, but the Canberra Times went to the Supreme Court to appeal. Although that court declined to get involved, the magistrate saw the point, or had it drawn to his attention, and the name did appear in due course.
As one often asked to omit names, I allowed that it might be possible, one day, for a case to be made out that a name should be withheld from our readers and his or her fellow citizens. Possible, but I never did hear such a case. The closest concession made by me over 30 years of involvement in the processes was after a documented request made by and through the court registry. We fuzzed details of a woman's address (though not her name or of the offence) in a report. She was being stalked by a former partner, and did not want her whereabouts known.
Most solicitors knew better than to ask reporters to withhold details. Magistrates routinely refused such requests even if, like us, they allowed the theoretical possibility of an original and worthwhile excuse one day.
Occasionally the great and good would appeal straight to the editor or the general manager, with a touching tale of how they faced embarrassment, scandal or perhaps the sack. We were never moved. We said, not entirely convincingly, that consequences flowed from the drink-driving, not publication.
Once, a senior official of the federal Attorney-General's department was arrested, and - in spite of his threats and bluster, his ''Do you know who I ams'' and his (false) claim to have written the legislation - tried to use his formidable influence to have the case dropped, or, when this failed, to have the case heard outside normal hours and thus unreported. Another senior man from his department assisted, to the point of approaching the acting senior magistrate (technically his junior in the chain of command) in chambers and asserting (falsely) that the chief had promised the matter could be dealt with over at the children's court, then in Childers Street.
The magistrate was doubtful, but unwilling to override his boss, who was away on leave. But as soon as the man left, he told court staff to inform me, and other journalists where the case was on. The official - seeing, from the flock of reporters and photographers that the jig was up - then compounded his foolishness by ringing virtually every editor in Australia - an intervention that guaranteed him ample page one treatment around the nation.
Had he appeared, as many public servants more senior to him did, in the ordinary way, and copped his punishment in the ordinary way, his name would have appeared with minimum details on about page 8.
The magistracy and I lodged formal complaints about the conduct of the two officers - all of us thinking they should have been charged with attempting to pervert the course of justice. Instead both were formally reprimanded by their departmental secretary. Four years later, a senior officer of the department told me the drink-driver was to be made a judge. Was I going to be tiresome and air the dirty linen?
''Of course,'' I said. ''He's unfit to be a judge. Not because he's a drink-driver, but because of how he tried to abuse the system.''
My editor decided to be more merciful and forgiving.
Collecting details for drink-driving cases was a slow and tedious process, sometimes complicated by regular changes to standard forms, and the belief, particularly by police, that the slightest error in a report entitled them to handsome damages. On one occasion, the form to make the first name recorded the arresting officer, not the defendant, as it had previously been. Our reporter, not noticing, recorded the police officer, not the malefactor, as having been convicted. The policeman got thousands.
Reporters were explicitly told that omitting a name was an instantly dismissible offence, worse, probably, than committing murder in the office. Court staff would have told us anyway.
We sometimes wondered if Canberra had got too big to publish the list. The shaming part of doing so declined as the city went from 10,000 to 100,000, then to 300,000, and there were some people who thought publication spiteful and vindictive. But magistrates implored us to continue. They said that having one's name published as an automatic incident of the offence was the largest single punishment, far more effective than fines, loss of licence or jail in deterring the offence. Were we to drop it, they would increase fines considerably.
Alas academics killed it. A restorative justice experiment was imposed to allow some drink-drivers to be ''diverted'' from the criminal court system. No doubt it was randomly done. But from our point of view, any expensively prepared list lost its chief justification - that it included everyone, big or small. Now there was, at most, only a random sample.
We stopped publishing the list, and began reporting only cases that were newsworthy. About 1300 names a year down to perhaps a dozen. One consequence is that the ordinary punter has, these days, little idea of how such cases are dealt with, but a lot of opinions about the fundamental rottenness of the system based on what they see as the extraordinary lenience shown to people like me or to Peta Credlin, the Prime Minister's chief of staff. It proves, they think, that there's one law for the toffs, and another for the mugs. That's an own-goal for confidence in the system, I'm afraid, but not justifying taking into account generally good records.
Had I had any doubt that I had to be outed, it disappeared when I got to court. WIN TV was there, to record the event. A cameraman ran to get into position, filming my walking past him, then doubling forward, repeatedly (about 10 times), to do it over and over again as I walked towards my car. Just doing his job, no doubt, but I half wondered whether he was trying to provoke me into pushing my hand on to the camera. I'm silly enough - as witnessed by drinking and driving - but I am not that silly. Jack Waterford is editor at large.