Sex crime trial by media

There’s no doubt that trial by our traditional judicial system has significant problems when dealing with sexual assault complaints.

Where there are genuine victims it can be highly traumatic for them, again. Many victims don’t make or don’t follow through with complaints because of the exposure and the pressures it can put on them.

And where false complaints are made it can make things very difficult for the person the complaint was made against.

A different approach has suggested for some time. This week Radio NZ reported:

‘Roast Busters’ case drives calls for sexual violence court

A decision looms on whether New Zealand will get its first sexual violence court, while other specialist courts are proving a success.

The decision will be the final instalment in the Roast Busters’ under-age sex case scandal, which revived the idea at a time when other specialist courts were proving their worth in cutting reoffending.

Part of the reason no one was prosecuted in the scandal was the teenage girls’ families not wanting them to be put through the wringer of court.

It can be a hell of an ordeal, on top of the ordeal of the offending.

A sexual violence court is being touted as a circuit breaker that the girls could have gone to without fear.

Law professor Warren Brookbanks wants the sexual violence court established; he leads a new research centre at AUT looking into just this type of non-adversarial justice.

“At the very sharp end of the criminal justice system there’s always going to be harsh penalties imposed for very serious crimes, especially serious violence or homicide,” Professor Brookbanks said.

“But at the other end of the system where you have a lot of young people, and people from various minority groups, the heavy punitive approach is not necessarily the best way to go, and it doesn’t necessarily reduce recidivism.”

In the Roast Busters case, a sexual violence court would have offered the chance to hold the abusive young men to account, while standing a better chance of actually changing them, he said.

But it’s just at an exploratory stage.

Justice Minister Amy Adams has until mid-June to respond on the Law Commission’s recommendation for a sexual violence court.

Chief district court judge Jan-Marie Doogue, police, lawyers and the Ministry of Justice are all exploring the feasibility of such a court.

In the meantime some women who believe they have been offended against have taken a different course of action. They went to media, and this has been reported at The Spinoff

‘I will come forward’

How a prominent New Zealand music identity conducted a troubling series of relationships with young women, including girls as young as 12.

Earlier this year several women spoke out on social media about their experiences with [name redacted] and a prominent member of the New Zealand music community. Alex Casey and Duncan Greive spent two months interviewing those women, along with their friends and family. The interviews, along with emails and chat logs, are the basis of this feature.

Tidball has strongly denied any wrongdoing but has already been suspended from a radio  show since this was published.

This ‘trial by media’ has been applauded by some and has raised concerns with others.

If the victims are one hundred percent right then it is effective journalism. If not then it could be unfair on the accused person. Possibly very unfair. He chose not to respond but was put in a very difficult position. The police are reported to be looking in to the allegations.

I’m sure Casey and Greive  were very careful in how they put the story together and how they wrote it. But even if justice is completely on the side of those victims it sets a precedent that could become a problem.

Other journalists may not be as thorough or as careful.

Amateur ‘journalists’ may see it as approval for running witch hunts online.

A lot of damage could be done, to victims and to people who could be falsely accused.

John Drinnan touches on some of this:

Lawyers have been called in over an article on the pop culture website The Spinoff, which reports allegations about a man said to be well-known in the music industry.

The website recounts sexual harassment claims against the man, based on interviews with women who said they had dealings with him.

The allegations have been made at a time of intense concern about society’s attitude to abuse of females, and the way such claims are sometimes treated.

But ignoring for a minute the substantive issues, in my opinion the coverage raises issues over the growing trend towards trial by social media.

At this stage, police have only begun to look at the claims, but there is a risk that people might form conclusions based only on the allegations in the article.

Spinoff owner Duncan Greive says the website took a lot of time considering the issues involved in running the article, which he says was clearly displayed as the women’s view of events. Several journalists have since held up the report as an example of good journalism.

I asked Greive whether the coverage was a case of trial by internet. He said that been happening for a long time, and he was comfortable with the way the claims had been dealt with.

The man’s lawyer says he is considering his options.

Danyl at Dim-Post sides with the trial by media approach in So I say ‘for justice we must go to Don Duncan Greive’.

Firstly, as the opening scene of The Godfather points out, if the criminal justice system is broken then people route around it. These workarounds are always less optimal than having an effective criminal justice system. The solution to that, in this case, is to fix the justice system’s demonstrable inability to punish or deter the majority of sexual offenders, not to question the work-arounds. The government is always quick with ingenuous fixes and compromises to the justice system and its principles when, say, the revenue streams of copyright holders or the powers of the security services are threatened, so it would be nice to see that ingenuity put to use to protect actual living humans from sexual assault.

I agree on this, as suggested above I think different ways need to be found of dealing with sex crimes in our judicial system. But in  comment he also says:

I’m not saying I have all the answers, but say we did move to a balance of probabilities system. That might result in a few unjust convictions. Which would be sad. But unjust convictions happen anyway, and it would also result in people being prosecuted and convicted for terrible crimes which they currently consistently get away with.

Nearly everyone would like to see more criminals held to account appropriately. But our judicial system always has a battle between convicting criminals and not convicting people who are not guilty.

The result of a few more unjust convictions is big price to pay for those who are unjustly convicted, as people like Teina Pora and Peter Ellis would probably attest to.

Some interesting comments follow in the Dim-Post thread on various sides of the arguments.

A different approach to sexual crime allegations should be seriously explored.

The challenge will be balancing the rights of victims to not be victimised further and to see justice being done, versus the rights of the accused to fair trials and the rights of the not guilty in particular to avoid conviction – and avoid vilification regardless of a trial result.

Sexual crimes are far to prevalent and everyone except the minority who are perpetrating awful crimes against fellow human beings would like to see criminals brought to account and potential criminals deterred from offending and convicted criminals from reoffending.

But the not guilty must also be given as much protection as possible too.

I think that trial media has to be viewed very cautiously.

It’s laudable for responsible journalists to hold people to account, but there are major risks if trial by media escalates amongst online cowboy and cowgirl writers and campaigners, no matter how well intentioned they are.

Repeated from The Spinoff:

If the events depicted in this story have been triggering in any way, please consider contacting any of the following organisations:

Leave a comment


  1. Gezza

     /  16th April 2016

    “Tindall has strongly denied any wrongdoing … “. Tindall or Tidball?

  2. Interesting – vigilante justice via “journalists” and bloggers. Given the decline in journalists ethics, many examples but the recent inability to understand the simply concept of a “lock up”, leads me to think that supporting Journos making accusations is inherent unsafe from a justice perspective.

    A separate court for sexual violence. All good, but as the history of the family court demonstrates this can lead to the accumulation of an institutional bias against the defendant/s

    For me – sure go hard with the concept but monitor it closely. BUT where an accuser of a sexual crime is PROVEN to have fabricated the story and lied under oath, that they receive a sentence of the same length the accused would have been subjected to. [And note I am not talking about cases that fail due to indecisive evidence I am talking about outright lies and false accusations.]

    It needs to be easier and less stressful for victims to get justice, but false accusations need to be dealt to severely

    • Kitty Catkin

       /  16th April 2016

      That happens in China, I believe; false accusations of any kind lead to the sentence that the accused would have had if they’d been guilty. I bet that they don’t have many false accusations there. People who invent sex crimes can be charged with wasting police time, and I know that many have been.

      I read a book by the wife of a man who was accused and cleared of some sex crime-I seem to remember that he was supposed to have exposed himself to some schoolgirls, and even though the lawyer did the case at cost it all but ruined them financially. Not to mention the stress of being accused of something like that-I can’t remember the details, but there were some real discrepancies like the ladder in the back of his ute reaching into the front seat when in fact it didn’t, or the other way around. I was appalled that someone who’s acquitted is still punished financially. How unjust,

      • Missy

         /  17th April 2016

        I don’t think China has many accusations of sex crimes full stop – false or otherwise. Unfortunately violence against women is not a high priority in China from my observations. Someone I know (a westerner) was sexually assaulted by a chinese man, the police didn’t investigate, and told her that she must have been wrong, we aren’t sure if that was because she was a woman or because she was a westerner – possibly both. She wasn’t raped, but it would have gone that far if she hadn’t managed to fight him off.

  3. Alan Wilkinson

     /  16th April 2016

    There is no problem bureaucracy can’t make worse. There is a huge risk that sexual violence courts will be captured by a point of view that weakens the presumptions and safeguards for innocence while also operating in a regime of secrecy that weakens public scrutiny.

    • Kitty Catkin

       /  16th April 2016

      A friend was threatened with accusations by his nephews’ foster-parents, it was blatant blackmail and homophobia.

      Some busybody contacted the police who came to our house-F was staying there with his (brown) nephews and somebody saw (white) F taking them there. The police had to come out-and were not impressed to have their time wasted in this way.

  4. Missy

     /  17th April 2016

    I think a good example of the trial of sexual crimes by media is the child sex abuse investigation in the UK, because of the media a number of prominent and well known men were crucified (figuratively, not literally) and had their reputations severely damaged, not to mention the damage to their mental and physical health – they were all found to have been innocent.

    I realise there are many that will disagree, but I think that the names of all involved (including the alleged offender) should be kept secret during an investigation, this will protect those that are innocent of the crime and victims of false allegations of trial by media, Social media lynch mobs, and the ruination of their (and their families) reputation. Of course once it goes to trial, and if/when they are found guilty then any name suppression should be lifted.

    • jamie

       /  18th April 2016

      Totally agree. In my opinion there is no good reason not to have automatic name suppression for all accused, and there is no good reason not to have all suppression lifted upon a guilty verdict unless the victims request otherwise.

    • patupaiarehe

       /  18th April 2016

      I agree too Missy. Mud sticks. The problem ATM is that only “prominent new zealanders” seem to get name suppression. Even after they are convicted, and their victim waives their own name suppression…..


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