Last weekend, on The Nation, Justice Minister Judith Collins gave the media a pretty big clue that she thinks there is a problem with the way we are seeing crime and justice processes reported. The Minister likened the TV coverage of the Ewen Macdonald murder trial to reality television. I take a slightly different view – to me, it was presented more like a soap opera, an unedifying misuse of the access media have to the Courts, the worst kind of overblown sensationalist reporting of a tragic series of events.
I don’t agree with the Minister’s proposition that perhaps it is time to take the cameras out of our courtrooms, but the argument for continued open and unfettered access to judicial processes becomes harder to sustain, the longer we see it being misused, and the criminal justice system turned into a sideshow.
John Bowie in the NBR (21/9/12) argues that the practice, started in the 1990s, of ‘sending cameras into court…was hardly going to “educate and inform” the public. They are there to open the nightly news with all the salacious sensation that [murder] trials engender’.
He may have a point. Justice Andrew Tipping, New Zealand’s longest serving judge, recently retired from the Supreme Court, has expressed concern that ‘the quality of media coverage is impacting on the public’s perception of the court system’, and not in a good way. Justice Tipping said that ‘…the art of court reporting has not improved in my time on the bench [1986 - 2012]. I think it is largely because journalists are under extreme pressure and we are in a soundbite era…the country shouldn’t have to endure diminished confidence in the justice system due to bad reporting – that is unhealthy for society’ .
Television is of course not the only medium guilty of sensationalising or dumbing down the reporting of crime and judicial process. Jeremy Rose on Mediawatch (September 16) captured the unease many people felt about all media, including television, print and radio, and the reporting of (among other things) the release from prison of Stuart Murray Wilson. The endless and aggressive use of the ‘beast of Blenheim’ label served to fuel and even risked giving license to ‘vigilante action’, and lead to a situation ‘where the media moved from reporting the news, to helping to create it’.
New Zealanders are being misled, not only by the nature of reporting, but also by its sheer volume. Research in 2008 showed that on average about 20% of the main TV news stories were about crime and about half were stories that dealt with either crime or disasters. A comparison of the emphasis on crime and violent deaths in selected lead newspapers around the world showed New Zealand came third in the number of such stories.
This helps in large part to explain why so many New Zealander’s believe society is getting more dangerous, and crime is on the increase, despite the evidence that our crime rates are actually levelling off or trending down. The false perception creates fear and moral panic, and has played into the hands of the ‘lock ‘em up’ brigade, with their simplistic punitive ‘solutions’, calling for longer and tougher jail sentences.
We need an informed and rational discussion about how to reduce crime, enhance public safety, and restore confidence in the justice system. Reversing the massive financial cost of imprisoning more people – a 250% increase in the last decade – would do us no harm either.
The media would do well to engage in an internal debate, to collectively agree to some guidelines or standards about crime and justice related reporting, with a view to paring down the sensationalism, the soap opera, the cheap ‘tabloid’ type reporting that titillates but also potentially traumatises.
A voluntary code might require some effort and restraint, and for some people spoil the ‘fun’, but surely that is a better route than waiting for a present or future Minister to cry ‘enough’ and regulate or legislate much tighter boundaries?