The role of the press

I’m cherry-picking a quote from a wider context and publishing it to make a point today.

The contempt of court charges laid by the Solicitor General against Fairfax media outlets, specifically the DomPo, were heard in court this week.  In his own paper, it was reported editor Tim Pankhurst defended his decision to publish material gathered by the Police but inadmissable as evidence like this: 

In part, it was in the public interest in order to restore confidence in the police, he said under cross-examination.

The problem with this is the lack of balance.  The role of the press is not to restore confidence in the Police, but to maintain a monitoring role.  If the Police have not behaved within the law, we should say so.  Equally, if they have behaved within the law, we should say so.

Publishing selective material cherry-picked from a 156 page affadavit from the Police – which by definition will not include the perspectives of suspected offenders – ‘to restore confidence in the police’ does not fulfill this monitoring role at all.  Rather, it suggests a media which has decided on the facts of a case before that case has even been heard.

Throughout the Louise Nicholas rape cases, the DomPo remained consistently critical of Police officers behaviour with respect to women in Rotorua in the 1980s.  They did not, and nor should they have in my opinion, seek to ‘restore confidence in the police’ on that occasion.

So why this one?

I stand by the need for public scrutiny through the media of the circumstances and details of those arrested last October, as I have already said.  But this media scrutiny needs to be fair and balanced.  The jury is still out on whether the public should have confidence in the Police, and will be until we know exactly what was happening in the Ureweras. 

There is also the spectre of racism to deal with.  The Police behaved very differently in Tuhoe than in arresting Pakeha suspects, which is the subject both of a formal complaint to the Police and a letter to the New Zealand Government from the United Nations.  Apparently New Zealand is the first government IN THE WORLD to attract the UN’s attention for anti-terrorism legislation not reaching international human rights standards.  That’s not an honor most kiwis would be proud of, particularly when terrorist activity here still seems relatively unlikely.

Unfortunately, how some New Zealand police officers behave continues to cause concern.  Most recently, there is the case of Jason Brougham who alleges he was beaten by the Police, prompting an internal police investigation.

Brougham said when he left custody the next day he had two fractured ribs, a fractured eye socket, concussion and bruising, including a boot imprint on his forehead, after a beating he said was inflicted by five officers over a 20-minute period while his hands were cuffed behind his back.

Now it may turn out these allegations are untrue – we don’t know yet – but true or not, is the role of the press to publish – or to seek to restore confidence in the Police?

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