The news media are routinely criticised as part of the problem in perceptions of crime, justice and the prison system. So what angles would reporters pursue at the government’s much heralded criminal justice summit? Asher Emanuel went along to the event in Porirua to find out.
In a departure from the carefully managed schedule, the floor was thrown open at the criminal justice summit on Wednesday. At 9am on the second and final day, the 700 attendees were invited for the first time to make open contributions from the floor. The change came in response to criticisms that the first day had seen too much time swallowed up by politicians.
A gang member stood and challenged Kelvin Davis’ characterisation of gang issues as overly simple. A representative from Te Puea marae asked after a comprehensive Māori justice strategy. A young man spoke of witnessing the suicide of his co-offender and friend in prison. An advocate for male survivors of sexual abuse expressed his exasperation.
“I am sick and fucking tired of spending the last 25 years trying to put the male survivor voice on the table and it’s forgotten about. We know from research around the world that up to 70% of men in prison for non-sexual offending have been sexually abused in childhood.
“I was optimistic the other night when we started this. Yesterday was a bit of downer for me at certain parts, but today I am feeling optimistic. I would just like to acknowledge Jacinda for having the courage to do this. I want to acknowledge all the ministers for being here because I know it must be difficult knowing you’re all going to get bombarded.”
Alison Mau, one of the MCs, asked contributors to keep their language clean.
And then Jayne Crothall, a member of the Sensible Sentencing Trust whose daughter was murdered in 1993, took the floor and said the words which would dominate the day’s news coverage.
“This has been quite a horrendous summit for victims of crime because we’ve been revictimised,” she said. “People here have been told they don’t know what it’s like to be a victim because they’re European. There’s been a lot of racist comments that are actually quite inhumane.
“I’m not a racist person by any stretch of the imagination. My murdered daughter was Māori. But I’ve never ever ever heard so much racism. What I do want to say is there has been a lot of blame, there has been a lot of excuses, heaps of experts on criminology and no experts on victimology.”
Interviewed outside the venue, Crothall spoke to Newshub political editor Tova O’Brien. “I definitely think we’ve been frozen out,” she said.
O’Brien put that to Andrew Little, the justice minister, at the 10.20am press stand-up. “Have you been freezing victims out of this process?”
“No, not at all. There are victims here, there are victims advocates here”, Little said, his eyebrows flying upwards.
“But they don’t feel like they have a voice here,” countered O’Brien.
At Little’s side, ministers Kelvin Davis and Stuart Nash wore blank expressions.
At 12:18pm Stuff’s headline read: “Mother of murdered Christchurch 3-year-old slams government’s criminal justice summit”. Then at 1:05pm came the Herald’s similar “Mum of murdered 3yo slams ‘racist’ criminal justice summit”.
Andrew Little blinked. In what was surely an attempt to put a stop to the emerging story line, the minister spoke from the stage: he would not “sign off on a programme of reform that does not result in meaningful change for victims of crime”. Little later said details of another summit, focused on victims, would be announced in the coming weeks.
“I think Andrew responded well to it”, said Kim Workman, founder of progressive reform group Rethinking Crime and Punishment and 2018 Senior New Zealander of the Year, told the Spinoff.
“But I think they do have to do something quickly because that will become a major political issue on the part of National. And if the media picks it up it will just turn the whole thing around.”
It was too late, though, to change the story.
“Everyone’s got that story today — everyone has gone to Jayne Crothall to talk to her. Every single reporter here has talked to her”, said one journalist covering the event.
A crowd of media liaison staff and press secretaries stood about, ready to facilitate interviews with attendees who’d experience the justice system, international experts, public servants and politicians. Why this story?
“It’s a very obvious angle in what is a big and complex topic,” said the journalist, speaking on condition of anonymity.
“Either that or they were too afraid to leave it because it’s this war of attrition now where you can’t leave a story even if you think it’s got no angle or obviously already been covered. Everybody feels as though if they haven’t got this story then they aren’t doing their job. Which is not how it always was, but that’s the internet, and that’s live, real-time news.”
On the first day another brief intervention had dominated the coverage.
Anzac Wallace, kaiwhakaruruhau for the Manukau Urban Māori Authority had stood after a speech by under-secretary for justice Jan Logie and criticised the proceedings for inadequate Māori representation and for running across only two days. His comments led the Herald and Stuff’s coverage on day one.
And so, to a great extent, the whole event had essentially been reduced to two stories.
“We all cover the same story,” the journalist said.
“The angle on everyone’s story yesterday was Anzac. And the angle today is going to be Jayne.”
And it seems likely the second angle will have the most lasting impact.
After the questions asked at the press stand-up it seemed likely that Newshub too would focus on Crothall’s dissatisfaction.
I asked O’Brien whether she’d spoken to the conference organisers about the extent to which victims’ perspectives had been included in the event.
“I think the way Andrew Little would answer that would be to say that a lot of the people who are offenders are also victims and I think we’ve been hearing a bit about that too. Certainly Jayne, who is doing some work with the Sensible Sentencing Trust, felt like her voice as a victim wasn’t heard and that offenders voices were being prioritised.”
(The Sensible Sentencing Trust is a law and order lobby group with, historically at least, a focus on harsh punishment. At one point, for example, it advocated for the establishment of chain gangs. Unlike the Herald and Newsroom, Newshub’s coverage did not identify Crothall as linked to the Sensible Sentencing Trust. Nor did Stuff. Denis O’Reilly, presented in the Newshub clip as a contrasting voice to Crothall, saying helping offenders and victims was not mutually exclusive, was, however, identified as a Black Power member.)
There were many victims and experts on victims’ issues at the summit.
Dr Kim McGregor, the government’s Chief Victims Advisor, ran a session on victims of crime on the first day.
“I had a panel of myself and four other experts who worked with victims. I spoke about the fact that the current system does not work for victims, the system largely ignores and often revictimises victims. We had Professor Jan Jordan speak about the way that rape survivors going through the justice system could have their voices heard,” she said.
“Professor Denise Wilson spoke particularly about Māori women who are victims of family violence who sometimes fought back against the offender and then they were criminalised. Then Ken Clearwater spoke about male victims and the lack of recognition that many males are victims of sexual violence and family violence.
“I know there are many many victims here. There are many victims’ advocates. Their voices have been heard at this summit.”
Ruth Money, formerly of the Sensible Sentencing Trust and now one of the criminal justice advisory panel members, told me she thought victims’ perspectives were being included in the process.
“I think the minister has given a significant nod to victims with my presence on the board, with Shila [Nair]’s presence on the Board. And Tracey McIntosh — it’s not just me and Shila doing victim work. I genuinely believe there is respect for victims.”
Had Newshub heard from other victims too?
“I’ve talked to other victims as well who feel that their voices are being heard, who are perhaps more involved in the summit than the Sensible Sentencing Trust-aligned people”, O’Brien told me.
“But how do you give weight to one victim over another?” she said.
Perhaps pragmatic realities shaped who got listened to. The journalist who asked not to be named pointed out the practical advantages to covering the Wallace and Crothall stories.
“Anzac’s got a reasonable profile, he was an actor. And Jayne has told her story often and she has worked with the Sensible Sentencing Trust.”
The Herald was able to use stills from the 1984 film Utu in which Wallace starred, and Stuff had lengthy video assets on hand from its ‘Faces of the Innocent’ project in which Crothall featured. Newshub’s later coverage ran clips of police vehicles outside Crothall’s home in 1993.
There had been so many different stories at the event. How does O’Brien choose what will become the news?
“I’m not going to single her [Crothall] out over others. There were other people here today who spoke really well as well. Yesterday we included a lot of Anzac Wallace, who took the floor when Jan Logie was on the stage because he felt that Māori voices weren’t being heard enough and he felt so moved by it to do that. And the minister acknowledged that, actually, yeah, that’s dead right.
“And today the minister also acknowledged that’s dead right that victims do feel like they’ve been frozen out and acknowledged that is an issue. So to me that is a valid issue that the government has acknowledged.”
All stories, especially if the story is going to make evening bulletin, need a bit of conflict: truth and lies, insults, a minister making a snap decision. Or in the case of the story you’re reading now, the framing of a news media going up against a government trying to fix a broken system.
On RNZ’s Checkpoint that evening John Campbell also began with the victims’ angle.
“The justice minister is trying to reassure victims he is focussed on them as he is on rehabilitating criminals as tensions, well, reach boiling point at a key justice summit.”
The reporter said: “The mother of a three-year-old who was murdered broke down in tears today when a Māori woman claimed Pākehā did not know what it was like to be victimised.”
“Justice Minister considers victim-only summit,” read Newshub’s evening headline.
“Victims of crime say they have been frozen out of the government’s justice summit and reforms prompting the justice minister to consider holding a specific victims only version of the conference”, said Mike McRoberts, introducing the story.
It first featured a clip of two young men who with their mother had been victims of domestic violence, and a performance they did for the summit. And then Crothall: “I definitely think we’ve been frozen out.”
Only the Herald and RNZ reported that earlier that day Māori attendees independently convened a Māori caucus, resulting in a request for the minister to support a Māori-focused event, which, as with the victim-focussed event, Little accepted.
The coverage wasn’t entirely fair to Crothall’s own comments that morning. Yes, she had criticised the summit and felt excluded by someone else’s comments. But she also spoke about what had been useful for her in recovering.
“It was really, really hard for me, but I met with the murderer of my child in prison and the confrontation was really beneficial in his journey”, she told the summit.
“So what I’d like to get from this is to say: being accountable and admitting what you’ve done is wrong is a really, really important step.”
Only the Herald reported that she had met with the man who had killed her daughter, though her reflections on it were not included.
I talked with Money again about the omission of this part of Crothall’s contribution.
“They love that, they’re very good at doing that,” Money said of the media.
“On what would have been her daughter’s birthday she’s in a room with 700 people that would trigger her PTSD and she’s still busy talking about how when she finally met Sibley she did finally get some resolution, as did he. And it helped the process. But that part of it wasn’t told.
“They want to put the Garth McVicars [former head of the Sensible Sentencing Trust] against the Kim Workmans. That’s their model for selling papers. We’ve all got to move past that.”
Recently Andrew Little asked the media to be cautious about how it covered crime and justice issues. Early last week he spoke to me about the difficult balance between raising a legitimate criticism and being seen to overstep his role.
“As a politician I don’t want to look like I’m telling the press how to do their job. They’ve got very important jobs to do, and one of them is to bear witness to the criminal justice system and how it operates.
“But I do think it is important to be proportionate in reporting. We know there’s lobby groups, or at least one lobby group, that’s very much about trying to create an environment where harsher responses and harsher penalties are legislated for. And they they have used some pretty dishonest tactics.”
O’Brien was critical of the minister’s recent interventions.
“It’s important that Andrew Little isn’t putting — the government isn’t putting — these parameters on people in terms of who they can talk to when they’re going through sweeping justice reforms,” she said.
“I definitely don’t think it helps to tell media how they should be reporting. Every journalist needs to take responsibility and recognise that we are in a privileged position, we’re talking to a lot of people. But I don’t think it helps for the minister to be calling some victims’ advocacy groups nutters and freezing them out of the conversation.”
Of course the point of political journalists is to challenge the government. But the notion of a victims-only summit — an outcome substantially influenced by the media framing of the summit — raises a pretty tricky question. Who exactly is a victim? And, as O’Brien had asked, how do you give weight to one over another?
Kim Workman told me that the Sensible Sentencing Trust, for example, refused to advocate for people who had criminal histories.
“But that excludes most of the victims! You’re a victim one week, and an offender the next.”
There is no clear line in most cases. Seventy-seven per cent of the prison population have been victims of violence; over half of all women in prison and 15% of men have experience sexual abuse.
Workman pointed out that the demographic most affected by crime are Māori women.
“52 or 53 per cent of all victims come from the same social and economic circumstances as offenders. So they’re marginalised people. The majority of them are Māori women. And they’re victimised multiple times.”
The National Party’s criticism of the event has similarly sought to draw a clean distinction between victims and offenders.
“[Little’s] attitude shows he’s firmly on the side of offenders and doesn’t want to know about victims of crime,” read Mark Mitchell’s press release.
Workman questioned National’s record on victims’ issues.
“One of the key messages that came out of the last National government was that we need to redress the balance within the system between victims and offenders. What they really meant was what we’re going to lower the rights of offenders in order to get the balance right, rather than to say, well, we’re going to actually address the issues for victims. They did very little for victims.”
The whole spectrum of victims is far more complicated to talk about than instances where a person has been the victim of a single and especially disturbing crime.
Andrew Bridgeman, the secretary for justice and chief executive of the Ministry of Justice, said the media focus on crimes perpetrated by strangers obscures the prevalence of domestic violence in New Zealand.
“The bottom line is that the most risky place for most New Zealanders to be, in terms of being affected by violent crime, is their home. Stranger danger is not the big risk. But the way the media portray the crime is the stranger danger element.
“The media has phenomenal potential to change the way people think about things.”
A false dichotomy between victims and offenders also obscures the fact that most agree the system is good for neither.
Moana Jackson, author of the 1987 report Maori and the Criminal Justice System: A New Perspective/He Whaipaanga Hou, in advocating a decolonised criminal justice system, is likewise critical of how the current system treats victims.
“In the current system, there’s no relationship rebuilding,” Jackson told The Spinoff.
“Because that system takes out the victim, the state becomes the victim. And there’s no chance for contrition, for healing. It’s a flawed system in human terms.”
I suggested to Money that it seemed the media coverage of the day was emphasising a conflict between the interests of victims and offenders.
“I don’t think that’s healthy. I think that’s media being irresponsible”, she said. Money supported the effort to have a comprehensive event to begin the year of work ahead for the panel.
“I think we need to be really grateful. This hasn’t happened before. It was a really brave move to put so many participants from the whole system in one big room. That’s really brave.
“It’s all very well and good for us to negative and come out and say ‘you should’ve’ and ‘you could’ve’ and ‘you didn’t’, but actually what did we do, and what did we achieve?
“I think the level of understanding the system and the Minister have around victims has certainly been enhanced over these days. And my understanding of some of the offending programmes has grown over the past two days as well! That was what the summit was all about, was it not? To get us all in a room and start the conversation.”
Earlier in the day I had asked Kelvin Davis, minister of corrections, about media coverage of crime and justice issues. His response was almost prophetic.
“It’s too easy for the media to go for the headline grabbing soundbite. I think that’s contrary to what we’re trying to achieve here. We’re trying to have a rational public debate but you can’t achieve that when you’ve got people just trying to grab the headline, grab the soundbite. It’s important that people engage sensibly and rationally,” he said.
“The media have a really important part to play in achieving the goals that we’ve set, if they want to. If they don’t want to be part of it, if they just want to grab those soundbites, it’s gonna make our job harder and it’s going to make the community less safe in the long run.”
“Every journalist is striving to tell the truth in a fair and balanced way”, O’Brien emphasised.
“I don’t think there’s been any kind of motivation to distract or detract from what’s actually going on.”
If neither Wallace or Crothall had said what they did, if Simon Bridges hadn’t called it a counselling session, or any of the other twists and turns, it’s possible you wouldn’t have read about the summit at all, or been able to hear about it two nights in a row on television news. One of the jobs of the advisory group, and purposes of the summit, was to make some debate happen. And it did.
But what might be the summit’s biggest achievement was something both too simple and too complex, to tell within the constraints of a news story: getting so many people with different experiences of, and expertise with, the criminal justice system under one roof, with senior judges sitting alongside senior gang members who in the past might have seen one another from their respective seats in courtrooms.
And the news stories that did emerge speak to the inevitably tensions of bringing together such a mix of different experiences.
Chester Borrows, former National MP and now chair of the advisory group, told me it was important participants were given an opportunity to speak freely with officials and politicians.
“The ability for those people to be able to stand up and say what they like and have the ear of ministers, and be quite controversial and confronting, in a manner that they were comfortable with — albeit the politicians may not be — was exactly what was intended. It wasn’t scripted, but no one’s worried about it.”
How would Borrows have explained the event?
“You’d say there was a hell of a lot of engagement with people who work at the coal face, and give their energy and their time and their life and their money towards working with people who are incarcerated or people who are on release, trying to keep people out of jail and politicians, complemented by some academics, some of the judiciary and some politicians.
“In the session I was in [on Māori overrepresentation in the criminal justice system] there must have been 20 people who got up on the floor. I haven’t seen that before. This open. In a forum like that.”
One person who’d spent time in prison explained to Davis during that session that Department of Corrections policies make it difficult for former prisoners who have reintegrated successfully to work with current prisoners.
“What the hell is that: you’re not allowed to associate with other criminals? But we’re success stories! How are they gonna succeed, how are they gonna be able to talk to people?” she said.
“Suits! They don’t wanna see you Kelvin Davis! You might be Māori but, come on man, they can’t talk to you! But we, in prison, we have a brotherhood and a sisterhood, we speak the same language.
“But I’m glad that this is happening,” the woman concluded, speaking of the summit.
Borrows said he was aware of the problems with Corrections policy on the topic, but the session had re-emphasised its importance for him.
“Ex-convicts working with convicts. Well, it makes entire sense to have gang members actually working with gang people in prison, because they do a real good job.”
Borrows said the kind of contact between officials, politicians and people affected by the system occurring at the summit was vital to effective reform.
“You can’t write justice policy if you never engage with people who are on the inside and the outside”, he told me.
“If you think you’ve got all the answers, then you shouldn’t be allowed to go anywhere near a pen that’s going to write policy.
“In the past we’ve had a Minister of Justice who never wanted to see a prisoner, and yet still went on to write corrections and justice policy even though she would never engage with a prisoner. Well, how can you do that? It’s just mad.”
Andrew Little and other ministers showed an unusual attitude in making themselves personally accessible to anyone in attendance. They did seek to make space for victims, whether for victims whose only contact with the system was as a victim, or, as is far more common, people who interact with the system sometimes as offenders, sometimes as victims, and other times as family and friends of both.
Despite the attractive narrative of victims on one side, offenders on the other, reforming a system which treats both poorly does not need to be a matter of divided loyalties.
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The Bulletin is The Spinoff’s acclaimed, free daily curated digest of all the most important stories from around New Zealand delivered directly to your inbox each morning.