Are Sydney siege interviews contempt of court?


Lawyers and academics are raising concerns over Channel Seven and Nine’s plans to air interviews of the hostages from the Martin Place siege as a coronial inquest is underway.


Channel Seven is planning a news special this Sunday evening featuring hostage interviews, while there are rumours of a rival Channel Nine special, with both networks offering survivors large figures for their stories.

Legal experts are concerned about the legal implications of the proposed interviews.

Former State Director of Public Prosecutions Nicholas Cowdery QC said: “There’s a risk that [the hostages] will fill in gaps in their own direct knowledge so as to please the person who is paying for their account.”

Former State Coroner John Abernethy said: “[The hostages] may embellish [their accounts] before the coroner, they may feel compelled to say what they said on television and it just loosens the whole thing. It runs a real risk that it’s not going to be the best evidence.”

Media law expert David Rolph, an associate professor of the University of Sydney, says: “My general view is that canvassing evidence of potential witnesses before an inquest starts, while it may not be illegal, is not ideal … The fundamental problem [with this] is that the inquest may find it more difficult to get to the truth, which prejudices the course of justice.”

An inquest kicked off last Wednesday at the Glebe Coroners’ Court, with counsel assisting, Gormley SC, outlining a number of topics which will be covered. Court Reporter Brad Ryan tweeted Gormley’s opening address, including a reference to the hostage interviews, where Gormley is paraphrased: “Gormly on paid hostage i/vs: No law against it, unless contempt. ‘Whether that’s to change … matter of public debate’.”

Contempt of court describes a collection of common law rules, that is, law decided by judges in cases and applied in like cases rather than law found under an Act of Parliament, which gives courts the power to punish anyone for conduct which prejudices court proceedings in particular ways. The type of contempt feared in this case would be contempt of court which has a tendency to interfere with the administration of justice. In laymen’s terms, this contempt occurs where the conduct of any person, including persons not party to the proceedings, makes the court’s task, in this case, finding out what happened in the Martin Place siege, impossible or difficult. This could be done by causing the witnesses giving evidence in proceedings to give untruthful or inaccurate evidence.

Contempt of court is usually an issue for media reporters where published articles reveal matters not in evidence in criminal proceedings, and a sitting juror reads that report and their finding of fact is influenced by that information without the knowledge of the parties to the proceedings. Where the fact-finder is a judicial officer, the argument goes that this person is less likely to be swayed by things they hear in the media. There is a case in point illustrating this: Civil Aviation Authority v Australian Broadcasting Corporation (1995) 39 NSWLR 540. It concerned whether media reports by the ABC featuring the accounts of eyewitnesses in a plane crash who were due to give evidence at a coronial inquest constituted contempt of court. The Court of Appeal held that they did not. This case stands for the following propositions:

  • A coroner’s inquest is part of the administration of justice and is susceptible to a finding of contempt.
  • The coroner is expected to approach his or her task with a judicial attitude. The emotional conclusions expressed in a media broadcast concerning the very matters for the coroner’s determination in that case did not give rise to a substantial likelihood that the coroner might be improperly affected in his findings.
  • There was no real or definite possibility, as opposed to a remote possibility, that the broadcasts would have any adverse effect on prospective witnesses at the inquest.
  • Australian courts have not accepted a general proposition that any media prejudgment of a pending case is contempt.

While not ideal, the interviews in the Sydney siege are unlikely to be so disruptive to the curial process that they have a tendency to interfere with the administration of justice, chiefly because the fact-finder is a judicial officer and not a jury. For these reasons, there are unlikely to be any legal challenges to the proposed media interviews.

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Image credit: Andrew Meares and Sydney Morning Herald

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