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The finals of the annual WH Irwin Public Speaking Competition took place this term on Monday of Week 8. The competition, in its 76th year, offers an opportunity for Years 11 and 12 students to develop and perfect their public speaking skills and compete for the St Peter’s College Reverend WH Irwin Memorial Prize for Public Speaking.  

 Congratulations to all contestants on their engagement this year. The finalists included Year 12 students Gunin Singhal and Will Lawrence and Year 11 students Aadi Mittal and Alexander Piscioneri. Unfortunately, finalist Johnny Turner was unable to make the event. All competitors greatly impressed both their Year 10 audience and the judges, Ms Jan Tollner and Mr Nicholas Browne, with their five-minute prepared speeches on their chosen topics. Students presented on diverse subjects, including human existence, procrastination and the future of the International Baccalaureate at St Peter’s College.  

 As well as the prepared speech, competitors presented a short impromptu speech written on the day in response to one of the three topics: ‘Famous Last Words’, ‘Seeds of Doubt’ and ‘The Arts are Indispensable’. It was wonderful to see each contestant embrace a different angle, making the topics relevant to their own interests. 

Congratulations to Gunin Singhal, our 2023 winner. Gunin presented an impactful prepared speech examining the impact of media on our justice system. Similarly, his impromptu speech, responding to the prompt ‘The Arts are Indispensable’ was highly impressive. 

The following is Gunin’s impromptu speech:

Lady Justice is immortalised in elegant statues outside many of the world’s most influential courts. Known to the Ancient Greeks as Themis and the Ancient Romans as Justitia, the Goddess of Justice and Wisdom often appears blindfolded. She reminds us that the law must be blind to sex, colour, and caste; it should make fair decisions based only on the facts presented to the courts.  

In Australia, the basis of justice is that the defendant is ‘innocent until proven guilty’. To ensure a fair trial, it must be proven ‘beyond reasonable doubt’ that the defendant is indeed responsible. But, has the right to a fair trial – a fundamental human right – been forgotten? 

Despite the supposed fairness of the justice system, the media picks sides. It begs the question: have they assumed the role of Lady Justice, especially in high-profile cases? 

Consider Brittany Higgins’ sexual assault case. After her allegations became public, the media quickly took her side, even though the legal system had not yet considered the evidence, and before the accused, Bruce Lehrmann, had been allowed to plead his innocence.  

Days before the high-profile hearing, journalist Lisa Wilkinson broke Lehrmann’s right to a fair trial by allegedly ignoring explicit instructions from the Department of Public Prosecution to not publicise the case. Almost instantly, Wilkinson delayed the trial by including the topic in her Logies acceptance speech. The presiding Chief Justice, Lucy McCallum, stated that Wilkinson intended “to celebrate the truthfulness of the story she exposed” … a truthfulness that is yet to be proven by the courts. 

And the consequences? Wilkinson seems to have escaped charges despite ruining the lives of both Higgins and Lehrmann, as well as their opportunities for justice. The traumatic trial has not only taken its toll on Higgins’ mental health but has emphatically exposed the blatant ineffectiveness of a system designed to safeguard society. How could the law be so horrendously corrupted by modern media? 

Even a re-trial is a mere fantasy. Damningly, in Higgins’ own words, the court case is no longer “about [her]”. How could the media fail this poor woman so terribly? Lehrmann launched defamation cases, Higgins wants $3 million in compensation, and taxpayers must pay for a $2 million no-trial. All this, from a media-created mess.  

Imagine this – one day, you’re accused of committing a crime. Before you even have a chance to defend yourself, the media picks the accuser’s side, and labels you as ‘guilty’ to the world, effectively deciding your fate in the public eyes, no matter how innocent or guilty you truly are. Would that be fair? Certainly not.  

Now, I’m not trying to label Lehrmann as innocent or guilty. That is something that the courts should have had a chance to decide – a chance that was compromised by the media. We saw the same thing happen with Amber Heard and Johnny Depp, with Lindy Chamberlain and her baby, and with O J Simpson, all with devastating outcomes.  

These life-changing events would not have descended into chaos and misery if the media had stuck to reporting instead of distorting the truth. They have overstepped. 

If the media cannot exercise self-restraint, the government must intervene. Legislation should be introduced for media blackouts before cases. Restrictions on what journalists can and cannot publish before a trial are vital. Penalties for violations must be harsh and unforgiving. The defendants’ destinies hinge on the law: they should be sheltered from the media-perpetuated biases and barbs that dispel their right to a fair trial.  

It is not to say that modern media should shut up shop. On June 24th last year, the American courts deprived women of abortion rights by overturning Roe vs Wade. News stations, outlets, and journalists united to organise protests and encourage activism against the decision. Evidently, the media plays an invaluable role as the people’s voice. Nevertheless, they must rediscover their place. 

It is not enough to worship Lady Justice’s intricate marble figure. We must also embrace the impartiality and fairness she epitomises. We must accept that sentences should only be handed down by the best people for the job: the judges who specialise in making objective decisions based on the facts. 

In George Washington’s words, “the due administration of justice is the foremost pillar of good government”. 
So, let’s allow Lady Justice to do her thing.  

Well done Gunin!

Nia O’Loughlin 
Coordinator of Public Speaking