Thursday, January 26, 2006

Rogers v TVNZ

I’ve had a few days to digest Dean Knight’s piece on the High Court decision to block TVNZ showing Noel Rogers’ alleged video confession and re-enactment of the murder of Katherine Sheffield. I’ve read the logic but my mind hasn’t changed. The decision was just. My reasons for agreeing with the judges are not entirely rational.

It’s 1981. Dad’s at the pub and a bored 11 year-old boy, left to his own devices, comes across a photo album of the interior of a house. Some black & white, some colour photos. Although he’s never seen this house before, it has that familiarity about it that all state houses share. The kitchen, the hallway, the bedroom. Lots of photos of the bedroom. And the old woman lying lifeless on the bedroom floor. Looks a bit like Nana, thinner maybe. Difficult to tell, there’s so much blood.

Dad was defending the young man accused of stabbing an old lady to death. The defendant had confessed to police and signed a statement admitting to the murder. The accused’s girlfriend was at the police station waiting to see him and police said that he could see her as soon as he signed the statement. The statement was taken under duress, my father argued. It was inadmissable. Not guilty.

Details of the case are covered more fully in The Foxton Murder by Anne Hunt. Dad wrote the book’s introduction, which is highly recommended for anyone seeking to understand the ethical perspective criminal law requires. It takes a certain breed to endure the fog of law and there's a certain price. It was one of the last murder trials my father took. Later, he was to say that the quality of criminal had declined greatly since he first entered the profession.

By now, I hope you're wondering how on earth I can possibly agree that the confession video should not be screened. Everything seems to lead to me saying let him dangle.

It's 1995, a quiet lunch in Bellamy's with the old man. In an extraordinary moment of honesty, we forgo the usual pleasantries, abstractions, and vacuous coversation. The Foxton murder has been bugging me for a while. I ask him why he became a lawyer. He tells me a story.

"Back when I was fresh out of Law School, I had a woman come to me asking for help. Her boyfriend was a drug dealer recently busted by the cops. She was there when he was raided. A detective pulled her aside and said, 'Your boyfriend's busted. I'll bust you too unless you fuck me.'

"Not knowing what to do, she had sought help from me. 'There's nothing else to do,' I said. 'Ring him up and say yes.' The detective came round and we caught him in the trap. "Absolute power corrupts absolutely. Without people like me, who would keep the police honest?"

Certainly not TVNZ. Last week, Ms Tigger was visiting so the TV was left on much longer than normal. TV One had some Oz program on about some unsolved child abduction and murder in Melbourne. And psychics. It took what seemed like two hours to recreate the brutal background. Interviews with family members as they bled their hearts for the camera, reliving the pain and anguish of the cruel events. The next pseudo-hour featured two psychics, finalists culled from a larger gaggle, interspersed with flashbacks of the re-enactment shown in the first two hours. The soundtrack was suitably ominous. The only slip in editing was when the camera crew helpfully pointed one of the psychics in the right direction.

By the end of it all, the police were no closer to finding their suspect. There was no way to tell if the psychics were right about any of their guesses. The abductions took place in 1981 and were widely publicised. Both women would be old enough to recall the case if they were living in somewhere in Oz.

It was the most shocking example of exploitation and sensationalism I have seen for a while. The sheer crassness of getting those relatives to relive it all again, doing whatever was in their power to find an answer to their tragedy. The twisted synergy of tabloid presentation and esoteric assertions usually confined to the women's rags. This was infotainment of the basest kind. I haven't felt that dirty in a long time. About 1981.

It was bad enough when reality TV shows breached an ethical dam built up in psychological research since Milgram's experiments on authority figures back in the '60s, and Zimbardo's prison experiment in '71. It got worse when CSI and company detailed forensics that has got criminals contaminating crime scenes and practising safe sex rape. Television has adopted the US format news bulletin, existing to indulge our prurient curiosity and morbid fascination. What a juicy ratings-winner that video confession would be. Hey, it's in the public interest.

The police cocked-up the confession. They should know better. Inspector Jim Taare should not have given the tape to the Sunday program before the trial. Doing so was obviously prejudicial to the case, especially when it was such important evidence and would certainly have been challenged. Neither do I believe that TVNZ's motives were entirely pure in its claiming public interest. Ratings, for example, would be a clearer motivation.

Good call,
Justices Venning and Winkelmann.