A committal hearing has begun hearing evidence in support of charges brought against Michael Neal, a 48-year old father of five from Coburg who stands accused of deliberately infecting other men with HIV. There are 122 charges relating to unprotected sexual encounters with 16 men between 2000 and 2006, when Mr Neal knew he was positive; he is accused of infecting two men with HIV during this period.
These details are contained in a wire story from AAP, carried by the Sydney Morning Herald and Herald-Sun on Tuesday 20 March. The story begins with “An HIV-positive Melbourne man organised orgies to deliberately infect other men with the virus, a court was told today.”
As it turns out, the story is reporting the opening statement of prosecutor Mark Rochford.
A committal hearing is held to establish whether there’s sufficient evidence to proceed to a trial, judged on a ‘balance of probabilities’ test rather than the higher ‘reasonable doubt’ standard applied at trial.
The opening statement is an outline of what the prosecution hopes it will be able to evidence at the hearing. It isn’t evidence. Reporting it as fact, before any evidence has even been heard, is highly prejudicial.
The prosecution has chosen to tap straight into barebacking discourse — the inflammatory language of ‘gift-givers’, ‘breeding’ and ‘bug-chasers’ — with Mr Rochford accusing Neal of organising “conversion parties”.
In the event he’s committed for trial, extensive press coverage of these claims might make it very difficult to give him a fair hearing. The Herald-Sun is already having a field day with headlines like “Deadly HIV game, court told” (20/3) and “HIV infection fantasies” (22/3).
Given the amazing power of barebacking discourse to suck all the oxygen out of an issue, leaving reason gasping in its wake, I hope to keep an open mind about Michael Neal, at least until we hear some more substantial evidence about what it’s alleged has taken place.