Hard News by Russell Brown


Celebrity Gibberish

I've been quite impressed lately with the Herald on Sunday: it employs more news reporters than the Star Time, gives them more news pages to fill, and often comes up with the better haul of stories. And it was fair enough that chief reporter David Fisher came up with a story about what Mikey Havoc has had to do about his unpaid parking fines: the process of courts and corrections is a public one.

Short version: the Waitakere District Court allowed Havoc to convert ageing debts amounting to $20,000 to a community work obligation. He has been playing records to students in the university quad, a job for which AUSA normally pays $150 for three hours. AUSA is one of the agencies registered with the Department of Corrections to provide community service work.

The problem is that the Corrections rules state that "An offender should not be placed with an agency for whom they already work." Havoc doesn't work for AUSA, but he does work for 95bFM, which is operated by the AUSA Media Trust, which was established by AUSA and whose four unpaid trustees are entitled to carry out various duties, including appointing managers.

So, again, Havoc doesn't work for AUSA, but the relationship is close enough that a story questioning is it reasonable. It's from there that the HoS heads off into lala land. This is the page three lead ( it's plugged on the front page as "Celebrity justice: TV star's $20,000 get-out-free card") , and a panel on the same page lists the names and form of Tony Veitch, Chris Brown, Naomi Campbell, Brent Todd, Boy George and Lee Tamahori.

None of these really have anything to do with the actual point of the story; they're just celebrities who have been ordered to undertake community labour as punishment for assaults, drug possession, fraud and soliciting. And this, the paper blares, is another example of "celebrity justice".

Of course, the vast majority of people who receive such punishments are not celebrities. And, frankly, it's offensive to compare Mikey Havoc and his parking fines to Tony Veitch or Chris Brown – far more so when that text sits right against a picture of Claire Chitham, the wife from whom Havoc separated this year. The same Claire Chitham who would have nothing whatsoever to do with this story.

And then we turn to the page 57 editorial, where the Herald on Sunday really jumps the shark. It mentions Mikey Havoc and his parking fines in the same breath as Paul Dally, who tortured, raped and murdered 13 year-old Karla Cardno. Why? Because both "have in common ... the questions they raise about how we punish people who break the law." (Subtext: and we're not going to let the fact that they are completely different in every way, other than the reason we've made up, deter us from conflating them.)

"New Zealand's justice system," the editorial declares, "is bi-polar." Which is a bit rich, given that what follows is one of the most confused attempts at editorial writing I've read in a long time:

This is a man who makes his living at bFM by playing music to students – and by the sound of things, enjoys his job. So his punishment scarcely qualifies as hard labour.

Evidently not; although I'm sure that Mikey could have found other things to do with his day than be an unpaid DJ for teenagers. But is it that unusual for people to use their professional skills when they're ordered to community service? Does it actually say in the regulations that the work must be unpleasant "hard labour"?

Where, you might be thinking, are they going with this? Straight for the passively-voice weasel wordage, basically:

Some will perceive this as an abuse of community service, and of society's good intentions.

For goodness sake, it's an editorial. Don't wibble about the opinions of "some" people; if you think it's an abuse, say so.

Others, wrongly, will see it as an indictment of the entire system of community service, as evidence that the justice system is too soft on law-breakers.

But they'd, be, er, wrong, right?

Every time an isolated case like this brings the sentencing system into disrepute, the cries for tougher penalties grow louder.

Well, you've clicked your heels together and said the magic spell "Sensible Sentencing Trust," so who knows?

But the only thing that we can really say makes this an "isolated" case is that it's a case picked up and put on pages one, three and 57 of a Sunday newspaper, and jammed into the ridiculous headline 'Wreaking havoc with justice'.

The editorial lurches on through an argument that really could have done with some evidence, unable to decide between an argument that the Sensible Sentencing Trust is a dangerous influence (quoting the Sian Elias on the risk of judge being pushed into "hot vengeance"), and one that judges are to blame, before lurching back to a plea that "rehabilitation must play a central role":

For this to happen, "the system" must retain the trust of the public. Special treatment for celebrities like Havoc does not help.

Amazingly, the key point of the news story – that it may have been a breach of the rules for Havoc to be doing his community service for AUSA – is made nowhere in the editorial.

Obvious disclosure: I know and like Mikey Havoc. Although l wouldn't describe us as a close friends, I talk to him on the radio once a week. I cannot fathom how someone would, by failing to deal with the issue, let fines build to such a point. But he did, finally, address it, and put a proposal to the court, as anyone in his position can, and the court accepted it. If you want to limit the scope of community service to the dirty, unpleasant and manual, fine: make that argument.

But "celebrity" has not entered this case by virtue of the judicial process. It's there because a Sunday newspaper might sell a few extra copies if it gets a celebrity on the front page. Mikey Havoc has not exploited his celebrity here; the Herald on Sunday has.

And it's done so in a weird and cynical way. A politician who gave a speech laden with the kind of creepy juxtapositions employed by the Herald on Sunday would be crucified by the media.

One might even say that the paper's name might in this case be best abbreviated not as the HoS, but as the PoS.


PS: The editorial also mentions the "high-profile entertainer" given a discharge and name suppression last week. I don't think this can be usefully discussed without at least the risk of breaching the suppression, and I ask that you don't do so here.

PPS: This week's Media7 recording is Tuesday evening, because we're off to make another show at the SPADA conference in Wellington later in the week. Our topic is Parliamentary perks and all that have flowed from them in the news. Click reply and let me if you'd like to come along from 5pm.

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