Underbelly: articles

Lawyers may scratch Underbelly

The graphic television dramatisation of Melbourne's underworld war that Channel Nine hopes will resurrect its rating slump faces a possible ban in Victoria after a courtroom stand-off between a Supreme Court judge and lawyers for the station.

Due to start next week, Underbelly is under threat after Justice Betty King ordered Nine to provide copies of the 13-part blockbuster to lawyers acting in a forthcoming murder trial. She had warned lawyers for Nine, which opposed releasing the series, that she had, but was reluctant to use, the power to prohibit the airing of it in Victoria.

"This is the last thing I want to do," she told Brendan Murphy, QC, for Nine. But she said she was prepared to act to ensure the accused man got a fair trial and that it was not delayed.

After being accused of not co-operating during the hearing - called by the Office of Public Prosecutions over concerns how Underbelly would depict the shooting of a prominent victim of the war - Nine backed down yesterday and offered to provide episodes one and two to the prosecution and defence teams.

Mr Murphy said those episodes had been edited by Nine for Victorian viewers, but episodes three to 13 were still undergoing extensive editing.

Geoffrey Horgan, SC, said the Director of Public Prosecutions, Jeremy Rapke, QC, was reluctant to prevent Underbelly's showing delaying it or ensuing public debate, but he could not assess his position until the series was seen by his office. Mr Horgan, an experienced gangland trial prosecutor, told Justice King he had seen parts of episodes one, three and five and described Underbelly as a graphic and powerful drama.

"I would be astonished if viewers weren't strongly attracted to it," he said, which included potential jurors.

Justice King said one of the problems she had with the series was that it was a dramatisation based on real events with fictional conversations which would give the trial jury an inaccurate background that might fill in the gaps the prosecution might otherwise be unable to do.

Nine has planned its entire year around the series and anything which blocked it airing would have a huge impact on the network's success, said Harold Mitchell, the executive chairman of the Mitchell Communication Group. He said Underbelly had been widely and expensively, promoted by the network.

The case resumes on Monday.

By Steve Butcher with Daniel Ziffer
February 08, 2008
Sydney Morning Herald