Hard News by Russell Brown


My guess for a while has been that in the matter of David Benson Pope something happened one day in class with a tennis ball but that it did not constitute the life-shattering abuse that his political opponents alleged. And that's basically how it looks in the police report released yesterday.

Benson Pope's office, having leaked details of the report to the Herald on Sunday, was again swiftly out of the blocks yesterday afternoon, pointing out that the alleged victim, Phil Weaver, told police:

"I can't remember the sequence of events, but it was along the lines of me talking because it was something I did. I think it went from there to I'll stick the ball in my mouth to show my mates, as a bit of a laugh. Everyone in the class thought it was funny."

This seems to have been news to nearly everyone. But what wasn't in the minister's press release was Weaver's subsequent evidence that he took the ball out and Benson Pope pushed it back in, which hurt. Eighteen of the former students interviewed by police either denied the incident happened or said they could not recall it, and nine recalled some version of it, but several differed on key details, notably the taping of the hands.

I've seen the statements provided in Benson Pope's defence by many former students and colleagues (some of them are here), and they are quite impressive. Many students appear to feel a real debt towards, and affection for, their former teacher. He does not appear to be an ogre. Some accuse Weaver and his friend Aaron Tasker of quite nasty acts of bullying themselves (this has subsequently been denied by the pair, and by some other students). The notorious OldFriends thread (started by Prime TV reporter Steve Hopkins fishing for scuttlebutt by posing as a former pupil with the line "anybody else remember those beatings that Benson Pope used to dish out?") is also worth reading.

And yet, somehow, the minister is not off the hook. When Rodney Hide and Judith Collins raised the accusation (or, rather, accusations: just about everything was in plural - "boys" had "tennis balls" shoved their "mouths" as implicitly routine punishment) in Parliament, Benson Pope uttered a blanket denial. He was harpooned from that point on. He could not back down at all without being seen to have misled the House. It was a very good gotcha.

I said at the time that Hide's intent was presumably to try and lead Benson Pope into a situation where he could be seen to have misled the House, and I was right. Benson Pope could feasibly claim not to recall the incident (or the striking allegation from the school camp) - two thirds of the people in the room at the time don't - but it really doesn't sit well. Benson Pope's approach since - verbal attacks on the police and the accusers, and the selective leaking of the report - has served to compound, rather than relieve, his problems.

Ironically, from what I can gather, the people who originally took the allegations to Hide and the media (and who have managed to keep their own names out of the papers) were motivated by what they regarded as Benson Pope's excessive - but perfectly legal - use of the cane (Hide's original allegations included one that Benson Pope had caned "particularly hard".) Personally, I've always been deeply grateful that I went to a high school that had done away with corporal punishment, and I recall my deputy principal (no softie) telling me that he believed that that action had greatly reduced overall violence at the school. But this would have been a difficult line for avowedly anti-PC politicians to run with.

When it was put to Hide on Checkpoint yesterday that Tasker had said to a Radio New Zealand reporter that neither he nor Weaver actually thought Benson Pope should be prosecuted (in his police interview, Tasker also said that he couldn't believe "it has come to this"), Hide distanced himself from the police investigation and said he'd never thought that either. He then said the same thing on Close Up a couple of hours later. Which is demonstrable bullshit. Two weeks ago, Hide said he was "staggered" by the "unbelievable" police decision not to prosecute.

One would think a man engaged in an attack based on the failure to recall incidents 23 years ago would be able to recall what he said and did himself 14 days ago. Collins - who was dropping the phrase "child abuse" into every second sentence until lately - appears to have undergone a similar conversion. It seems reasonable to suppose that the victims' interests were not exactly the only ones those two had in mind.

There has been some crazier stuff uttered in the blogosphere recently, including repeated comparisons with sexual abuse. Last night someone posted a comment on Kiwiblog demanding to know "Should Iraq accept the same passage of time argument for Saddam's crimes committed in 1982?" Yes, someone, in apparent seriousness, compared David Benson Pope to Saddam Hussein.

The reality is that had Benson Pope not been who he is, this matter would not even have been investigated a quarter of a century later, let alone prosecuted. But his handling of it has not reflected well on him, and it would be fair to say that few of the protagonists here have emerged unscathed. I find the whole affair quite depressing.

Anyway, Scoop has scans of key parts of the evidence. Tasker's statement is interesting in respect of the pressure that was put on him by Rodney Hide and 3 News' Duncan Garner, who said that if he didn't go on camera, David Benson Pope would be suing TV3. Um, really?

Elsewhere, and this is a pretty big deal for those of us with family on the autistic spectrum, new research has found measurable faults in brain function in autistic children asked to interpret faces - specifically, in the action of mirror neurons, which fire both when a person carries out an action and when an action is observed. Mirror neurons appear to have a good deal to do with what has been called theory of mind - the ability to understand that others have feelings and beliefs different to one's own. It's clearly way more complex than that, and I think it misses the point to look at ASD solely in terms of deficit (if only because both Newton and Einstein seem to have been somewhere on the spectrum), but this is interesting stuff.

And just to finish with something so engagingly looney that I'm still not quite sure someone's not having a laugh, many thanks to Andrew Wilson for alerting me to Liberality for All, a new comic series in which "a group of bio-mechanically enhanced conservatives led by Sean Hannity, G. Gordon Liddy, Oliver North, and a young man born on September 11, 2001, set out to thwart Ambassador Usama bin Laden's plans to nuke New York City."

It really is very funny. Andrew has kindly posted a scan of the first issue here. To read the format you'll need FFView on the Mac or CDisplay on a PC.