Hard News by Russell Brown

Hitting Kids

Firstly, isn't it a bit rich for Act and National to accuse the government of "exploiting" the murder of Coral Burrows in musing about a potential change to the law on physical punishment? Should we count the times each party has weighed in on a tragic crime for the sake of political mileage?

More to the point, I genuinely wonder whether Act's justice spokesman Stephen Franks actually believes what he says in this press release. According to Franks, "the law against brutality is as clear as that against murder".

Bill English also rushed out a press release, declaring Section 59 of the Crimes Act, in a slightly odd choice of words, to be "a tried and tested balance between the realities of parenting and the ideal childhood."

These comments are simply impossible to square with the way that juries in the real world have interpreted Section 59, which offers the defence of "reasonable force" to parents who strike their children. As this site notes, the following assaults are among those to have been found "reasonable" under the law.

In October 2000, a judge dismissed assault charges against a Christchurch man, saying he used reasonable force when hitting his ten year old foster-daughter with a doubled over belt.

In February 2001, a jury in Napier acquitted a father of assault on the basis he used reasonable force when smacking his son with a piece of wood. A paediatrician had seen bruises on the boy's buttocks several days later.

In November 2001, a jury accepted that a Ngaruawahia man had used reasonable force when disciplining his twelve year old daughter with a hosepipe which left a 15 centimetre lump with red edges on her back.

There are many other cases, including those of the children who turn up at Auckland hospitals with bruises but whose cases never proceed to a prosecution. Why would the police bother, when clear cases of brutality have failed under the law?

Act and National aren't alone, of course. Both John Tamihere and Willie Jackson have defended hitting children within families as some kind of Maori cultural right. Yeah, right. And it's working so well for Maori, isn't it?

The fact is that Maori, representing 15 per cent of the population, account for nearly half of all convictions for offences of violence (Pacific Islanders are similarly over-represented). Maori, especially children, are also disproportionately the victims of violence. We all express righteous indignation when some Islamic cleric declares that it's culturally okay for a man to assault his wife; yet are we to hand out a cultural free pass here? (This is, of course, the way that domestic violence used to be handled - the police would determine that an incident was a "domestic" and leave well alone. That doesn't happen any more.)

There are, of course, other factors at work. And, frankly, the Coral Burrows case, which involves abduction and a murder charge, is a rather poor one on which to argue for a law change. But it seems absolutely clear to me that something has to be done about Section 59, because its real-world effect is to legitimise assaults on children within the family that would be unacceptable in any other sphere.

So if the removal of the defence is politically unacceptable - in deference to the fears of middle-class parents who think that the police will burst through the door to arrest them if they smack a child's bottom - can we please do something about it? Could we, perhaps, amend the law so that assault with an object is banned, or attempt to better define what "reasonable force" means?

Have I ever hit my children? Yes, the very, very occasional smack over the years, in an acute situation (for example, to short-circuit some back-seat battling that was becoming a hazard to the safe operation of the family vehicle). I suspect there aren't many parents who haven't done that. And that's not what a change to the law would target. Indeed, it's misleading to say a change in the law is about "smacking" as most of us understand it at all.

Would it work? I can only note that the schools my children attend - where there is no corporal punishment, and welcome innovations like student mediators - are markedly less violent places than the schools I went to. (Actually, my high school abolished corporal punishment before I got there. I once had a conversation with the deputy principal in which he marvelled at the way that it had reduced violence and conflict throughout the school.)

Anyway, a good speech on the subject by Dame Sylvia Cartwright, who points out that the law provides the family dog with more explicit protection from assault than it does the family children.

Andrew Gilligan might have offered his mea culpa (see Wide Area News on the new Mediawatch website) for overplaying his story on Downing Street's weapons dossier, but there's no doubt whatsoever that the public interest has been well served by the investigation that his reporting provoked.

I think that the most recent of the elisions, exaggerations and alterations to the substance and language of the dossier to have been revealed is possibly the worst. The Hutton Inquiry has heard that the phrase "Saddam is prepared to use chemical and biological weapons if he believes his regime is under threat," was replaced with the words "Saddam is willing to use chemical and biological weapons, including against his own Shia population."

The problem, as documents released to the Hutton inquiry reveal, is that Jonathan Powell, a senior aide to Tony Blair, realised that by any logic, the original statement was an argument against invasion. So it was changed. The dossier was never intended to give British citizens a true and balanced picture, but to back the case for a war that had already been mandated. It's just a shame that someone had to die for this to be made plain.

On a cheerier note, Michael Davidson of Obscure Pixels has been back in touch with a little more info about the Sportronic

I've rescanned and uploaded a few more Sportronic brochures, etc, including the back of the poster. These mention the system was "awarded Designmark for technical excellence".

I think the one you have must be a Sportronic 4, the model released before the one I have images of - this just lacked the light gun functionality.

Datewise these were produced late 1979->1980. I have sales/warranty slips for one purchased 17/12/80 - so it was a Christmas present for some lucky person.

There were a number of different NZ companies producing TV Games around this time - I've got 1/2 a dozen different locally produced versions, the plans for making these were widely published in amateur Electronics magazines from 1976 onwards.

Some background about the chip that was the "brain" of this system is here.

Odd little bit of obscurity - the light gun design is identical to one Jane Fonda uses in Barbarella. It's vaguely visible here.

I've got a number of these systems and they still all work 20 years on!

Jolly good, although I'm still hoping there's a story behind Sportronic TV Ltd, and its owner, the Spectrum Group. Did they crash and burn, or just wither away?