Friday, January 10, 2003

Haven’t seen any one else blogging on it, so I thought I might as well. Call me crazy, but I kind of like those “too hot to handle (or blog about)” stories.

This difficulty of this story, from a media commentary POV – a story which has been aggressively pumped by Melbourne tabloid, the Herald-Sun, over the last two days – is that there are really only one-and-a-bit positions that can be taken on the story. Condemning tabloid muckraking/invasion-of-privacy etc – the typical high-horse option – seems a much shakier proposition because of the specifics of this story. It really is – drum roll, please – a (rare) case where the application of the Herald-Sun’s harshest tabloid spotlight can be argued to be fair and reasonable.

The facts concern a cheating student, Kevin Sze Wong, who paid his private tutor to sit one of his exams at RMIT, a Melbourne university. Today’s (latest) developments are at:,5478,5819409%255E2862,00.html

Yesterday, the story was Herald-Sun front page news, with a big banner headline screaming “Uni cheat gets off”. A story of a Magistrates' Court conviction would not normally be newsworthy at all, without a celebrity or novelty aspect; while a guilty plea followed by verdict of a good behaviour bond without a conviction recorded – as was the case here – would tend to put police prosecutors on the defensive, for having surely too-zealously pursued a trivial offence. Conversely, the accused in such a case, although morally vindicated rather than technically acquitted, would have little to fear from any media attention.

In the Kevin Sze Wong story, however, the case for police prosecution – on a charge of making a false document – hardly seems an over-reaction. In an unusual (and ordinarily, rather undesirable) case of the criminal law taking over from where traditional academic standards and sanctions have simply dropped the ball, there are no winners. The police pursued a case where a good behaviour bond was a forgone conclusion, due to RMIT’s opposition to criminal, or (it seems) any other form of substantive action against Kevin Sze Wong. RMIT’s decision here is baffling, to put it mildly, even from the mindset of a deeply dysfunctional institution acting to protect a secure cash flow (overseas student income), at any price.

I make the latter point particularly because it was Kevin Sze Wong himself who was most harmed by RMIT’s decision to go for the extreme light touch over his cheating. Given the brazenness of his cheating modus operandi, and its difficulty of detection (I query whether photo ID cards do really make that much of a difference here), RMIT made a serious misjudgment in trying to sweep the whole affair under the rug.

Sometimes, publicity alone can be the most devastating form of punishment. While RMIT itself is/was not on trial, the short-cut that it took here has come at an immense cost - the “cheat gets off scot-free” banner headline was that was always bound to come out, sooner or later.

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