Guest Column by Dr Nick Sharman, Media and Communications

August 13 / 117

Dr Nick Sharman, Media and Communications Program.
Dr Nick Sharman, Media and Communications Program.

How society treats dissidents – those who disagree with the opinions of the majority - and the way the media reports on this treatment has long been a vexed issue in countries throughout the world. In recent times incidents such as the trial and conviction of Pussy Riot in Russia and the furore over the actions of Julian Assange and Wikileaks have raised important issues about the extent to which the state should go in protecting itself against dissident voices. Also at issue is the way the mainstream media reports on the views of protesters. Is it possible for radical activists to gain a fair hearing in the court of public opinion?

My own research in American History and media during the Vietnam era, is located within a time when many criminal trials were held as much to put dissidents on trial for their beliefs as to punish them for crimes committed against the state. The most famous of these trials was the trial of the ‘Chicago 8’ held over five months between September 1969 to February 1970. On trial were eight of the most prominent leaders of the anti-war movement, the counterculture and the leader of the Black Panther Party, Bobby Seale. The activists were charged with coming to the Democratic National Convention in Chicago in 1968 with the express intent of inciting a riot. Despite the fact that most of the violence that occurred at the convention was instigated by the police against the demonstrators the Nixon Administration and its allies sought to hold the protesters and their leaders responsible for the chaos into which the convention descended.

When the trial of the ‘Chicago 8’ began Judge Julius J Hoffman, a 74-year-old judge who made no secret of the fact that he viewed the activists with their long hair and radical views with open disdain, faced the protesters on the bench. Throughout the trial the judge made every effort to undermine the defendants’ rights in court. On the first day of the trial he ordered the arrest of four defence lawyers who had sought to withdraw from the case by telegram in a move later described by the Court of Appeal on the case as having no substantive foundation. Most famously he refused to allow Bobby Seale to act as his own counsel in the trial and in response to Seale’s constant attempts to cross examine witnesses and otherwise act in his own defence he finally ordered the Panther leader to be chained and gagged in the courtroom.

Despite the obvious injustice perpetrated on Seale and the other defendants in the case the New York Times’ coverage sought, as a means of maintaining the legitimacy of the Federal Court system, to down play any questions of injustice raised by the judge’s handling of the trial. The paper primarily blamed the defendants for their disruptive response to the judge’s actions rather than considering the legality of the judge’s actions – actions that were later to be found by the Court of Appeal to be highly inappropriate. It is enlightening that only when a member of the establishment - Attorney General Ramsey Clark - was prevented from testifying in the court that the paper came to more fully acknowledge the injustices raised by the judge’s conduct of the case.

In light of my research on the media coverage of this famous trial I am constantly asking myself questions about how and in what context the voices of protesters are heard in the mainstream media. New media has opened up vast new spaces for radical voices to be heard but are the mainstream media sources still relying on the representation of protesters’ actions, as occurred in much of the coverage of the Occupy Melbourne group’s removal from the city square, more than a substantive discussion of the issues raised by those who challenge the dominant ideology in society.

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