Hard News by Russell Brown


Behaving badly at the bottom of town

The words "secret" and "secrecy" appear seven times in the New Zealand Herald's lead story today, most notably in the headline: 'Top secret: Celebrity arrested in central city'. In the era of Wikileaks, the joining of the words "top secret" to a story bringing the news that someone has been "charged with bad behaviour in downtown Auckland" might be mistaken for satire.

But it's not. It's the lead story in the paper of record. Although there's a faint attempt at feigning outrage in the text, the real emotion of the paper's holiday-season editors on discovering that a "celebrity" was in court over a minor social infraction -- and that he had been granted interim name suppression -- must surely have been celebratory. Who could have expected such a windfall in the silly season?

Now, there's a word in the above paragraph that does not appear in the Herald's story. Can you guess what it is? It's "interim". So far as I can tell -- because the news story cannot find room for such details -- the name suppression lasts only until the person concerned appears in court next month.

Garth McVicar is quoted, expressing the special rage he reserves for every accused who is not either Bruce Emery or David Garrett. And so is someone who really should know better: Professor Jim Tully, head of Canterbury University's School of Social and Political Sciences.

Tully is quoted as saying the granting of interim suppression was "odd", and "a very fortunate favourable treatment of the individual."

Tully is simply wrong. A community magistrate will almost always grant a duty solicitor's request for interim suppression, especially if the police do not object -- and more especially in the middle of a holiday break. When the accused appears before a judge, it will be a different matter, and rightly so. But this is not some fancy celebrity justice.

It suits the paper to treat it as such of course -- there's nothing that gets the readership going like an appeal to our love-hate feelings about well-known people -- and Edward Gay is simply doing his job in writing the story. If he's sexing things up a bit -- the inevitable mention of the "prominent entertainer" has him "performing an indecent act on a young girl" (seriously, what age do you think of when you hear the phrase "young girl"?) -- well that just goes with the territory.

You certainly can't accuse the Herald of being half-hearted in its pursuit of celebrity this season: there were mere minutes between the appearance Maria Sharapova in the arrivals hall at Auckland airport and the publication of pictures and a story on the paper's website.

But when it's not providing breaking celebrity news, the Herald is a paper fond of making mighty claims for itself in matters of public affairs. So it seems worth noting that there is another court story it has not made its front-page lead. Indeed, which it has not, in fact, reported at all.

It is this: the 18 people charged in the wake of the Urewera "terror" raids have been denied a jury trial.

Remarkably, even the suppression of the December 9 decision by Winkelmann J -- to preserve the fair trial rights of the accused -- does not appear to have raised the Herald's dander. Or, for that matter, the dander of any other news organisation.

On December 21, the same judge accepted in part the Crown argument that there is a public interest in the public knowing of both the decision to deny a jury trial and the reasoning behind it. (Counsel for the accused opposed the Crown's suggestion that the suppression be made more limited. No news organisations seem to have been sufficiently bothered to have a view.)

So paragraphs 78 and 79 of the original judgement may now be freely reported: they say that "the trial of the respondents Teepa, Wharepouri and Hunt be severed from that of the other respondents", and that "the trial of the remaining respondents proceed before judge alone."

So most of the accused in this controversial and sensitive case will be denied trial before a jury of their peers. I can't tell you the reasoning, because that remains suppressed, but it seems an alarming and dangerous decision -- whatever you might think of the merits of the case or the actions of those charged.

As you might already know, my own opinion of the defendants and their actions is not high. At best, they have behaved extremely foolishly. But a trial before judge alone is a recipe for martyrdom; an effective guarantee that a large sector of the public will have no confidence in any eventual finding in court. It is not only unfair, it is also supremely unproductive.

And, indeed, one of the accused, Valerie Morse, has already set the scene for that with a press statement declaring that the 18 defendants "are being railroaded". The public should really have access to more measured reporting on this case than is available in Morse's hyperventilating press release. But sadly, that's all there is.

In other news, someone behaved badly in the vicinity of the Viaduct.


PS: Thanks to Idiot/Savant for paying attention and for helping me out with copies of the decisions.

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