Hard News by Russell Brown

222

Only what we would expect a child to do

It became obvious that the New Zealand Herald was running away from its role in juicing up the matter of Martin Devlin's holiday-season infraction when yesterday's news report placed its description of Devlin inside quotation marks. The broadcaster was not a celebrity, but a 'celebrity' -- as if someone else had said so. Someone lacking in judgement and a sense of proportion.

This morning's follow-up editorial does the same thing. One could be forgiven for thinking that the paper of record had never wished to be dragged into this trivial business -- indeed, that its editors had barely even heard of this "Devlin" person before yesterday.

One might then be directed to the Herald's front page lead story on New Year's Eve, which boasted the headline Top secret: Celebrity arrested in central city. The story's opening paragraph was this:

A celebrity household name was arrested and charged with bad behaviour in downtown Auckland - but he has been allowed to keep his identity secret.

As Devlin himself put it in his statement yesterday, "several reports have described me as a 'household name'. I think we all agree that description is totally inaccurate."

Had Devlin only declined to seek interim name suppression, the editorial pleads, his:

… spot of bother with the law would have attracted minimal coverage. The media would have briefly reported his arrest for disorderly behaviour in central Auckland, and the granting of police diversion. Even his "celebrity" status would have warranted nothing more. Within a matter of days, the incident would have been forgotten.

Really?

The initial Auckland District Court hearing provided the media with only a sketchy outline of why the broadcaster had been arrested. Any application for name suppression always implies the accused has something to hide. Interest is piqued when the applicant is normally in the public eye. Devlin, therefore, invited interest from the media, and speculation in the community. It was widely assumed, naturally enough, that his behaviour was far worse than what has transpired to be a minor incident.

So the Herald "assumed, naturally enough" (although, again, from the feeble passive voice of the text, we are invited to conclude that these were someone else's assumptions) that Devlin's offending was the stuff of a front page lead story without bothering to wait for any factual account of the incident. Are we really to believe that its behaviour would have been substantially different had he been named from the outset? Really?

Still, the Herald is never short of fingers to point in other directions:

If Justice Minister Simon Power needs yet another case to justify his planned changes to name suppression law, this was surely it.

Ah, yes. It was the law's fault, guv'nor. My arse. No matter what legislative change Simon Power might be minded to introduce -- and that leaves the field pretty wide, frankly -- Martin Devlin, or any other citizen, would have been entitled to have a judge decide on the merit of his application for suppression in light of that law. And the news media -- as they were already preparing to do -- would have been fully entitled to argue against it in the same court.

Although the Herald contrived to give the impression that this was already a done deal -- the original story never noted that Devlin had only been granted interim suppression until a judge could hear the application proper -- Devlin never got to that stage.

But wait, there's more:

But it is doubtful that Joe Citizen would have been granted suppression, even by a community magistrate going through the formalities in the period between Christmas and New Year. What is unquestionable is that some judges still seem to think position and privilege are grounds for suppression.

The first part of this paragraph is, to put it bluntly, bullshit. As I explained in my original post on this debacle, a community magistrate will virtually never decline an application for interim suppression, especially in a brief procedural hearing in the holiday season, and when the police do not object.

But, I confess, I did have an advantage. I asked a lawyer about it. The Herald (and, later, the Dominion Post) seems to have gone to some lengths to consult only "experts" who were unfamiliar with both the law and the practice of the courts. Why ask someone who knows when Garth McVicar will happily hawk up a quote without knowing any of the facts of the case?

And if it is "unquestionable" that "some judges still seem to think position and privilege are grounds for suppression," wouldn't a courageous and responsible paper have named those judges -- if only because to do otherwise would surely have been a slur on all the good judges -- and attempted to demonstrate how "position and privilege" actually influenced this case?

In the end, as Brian Edwards says in the Dom Post's story today, Devlin would probably have been better advised not to seek suppression. Had he been an ordinary Joe, his application would have at least proceeded to a hearing. Who would have cared to stop it? But because he is, to whatever degree, a celebrity, he wasn't going to get that chance. Every other 46 year-old male with a profile was obliged to deny that he was the subject of the Herald's lead story.

Devlin says his intention in seeking suppression was solely "to try and protect my children from being identified and embarrassed by my behaviour," and I doubt there is any father who would not empathise with that. He also notes, correctly, that the best way to do that would be to not behave like an ass in the first place. But this was a minor family tiff that involved no violence, no threats, no abusive language -- just a dent where he sat on the bonnet of the family car. You know, maybe letting the family move on would have been the decent and sensible thing to do.

Although I made no effort to find out the name of the "household name", I knew it soon enough. Somebody texted me. It was inevitable that, with the "top secret" case being blasted across the front page of the paper as a matter of intrigue, people would gossip about it.

The editorial concludes -- clearly more in sorrow than in anger, you understand -- that:

It seems Devlin finally recognised the practical futility of trying to suppress his name in the face of overwhelming public interest.

Oh, nice. "Overwhelming public interest." It's your fault. You, the public. You absolute monsters.

And just in case you haven't grasped it yet, the last line …

This should be the last example of an incident such as this being absurdly inflated by secrecy.

Of course. It was secrecy wot dun it. Not the paper that splashed a story across its front page without even knowing the facts of the case, and which apparently could not even wait a couple of weeks to hear them read in court.

I'm realistic about the Herald's need to keep up circulation and page views, and I know that "celebrity" coverage is part of any such effort in our day and age. But I would still hope that a paper fond of making grand claims for the role of the press could restrain itself from pimping out its front page like this. And, more so, that it would have the decency to own its own actions thereafter, rather than point furiously in any direction but home. It is, after all, only what we would expect a child to do.

 

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And now, as a reward for sitting through the lecture above -- free stuff!

I have three double passes to Monday's Laneway festival in Aotea Square. Just click the little envelope icon below to email me. Make your subject line read: "Laneway Auckand [name of the band you most want to see]".

And I also have one double pass for Tuesday's sideshow in Wellington, featuring Deerhunter, Beach House, Blonde Redhead, Ariel Pink's Haunted Grafitti, Yeasayer and Ladyhawke. Make your subject line read: "Laneway Wellington [name of the band you most want to see]".

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