You’ve probably read the Spinoff’s piece of investigative journalism concerning prominent Auckland DJ, Andrew Tidball, and allegations of his inappropriate behaviour towards a number of women. If you haven’t read it, I would recommend going and doing so (although the contents are disturbing). I am not going to rehash its contents here; all I need say to motivate this piece is that serious allegations of misconduct have been made about Andrew Tidball, and they are of such a nature that a police investigation would be warranted. Rather, I’m interested in a variety of different responses I’ve seen to it online. This is by no means an exhaustive or in-depth discussion of the matter, and I’d love to hear your thoughts on all of this, once you’ve read this piece.
This is a matter for the police/courts!
A common refrain when stories like this break is to say ‘We should say nothing and leave it to the police’, or claim ‘This should have gone to the police, and not been a news story.’ The latter response doesn’t interest me as much as the first, because often the latter response is more a reaction to the messenger than the message. So, for example, John Drinnan in the New Zealand Herald seems aghast the Spinoff ran the story, even though as some have pointed out on social media, he didn’t seem at all phased when the New Zealand Herald ran similar stories of their own.
So what of the claim ‘Say nothing and let the police handle the matter!’ Well, what I here, when saying ‘This is a matter for the courts/police, surely?’ is not just that certain segments of the population don’t trust institutions like the Police or the Courts, but, historically, we didn’t even need them to deal with such problems in our polities.1
The Police – at least in the form we know them – are a modern invention. Prior to that – in the West at least – we relied upon a raft of measures, from wardens, sheriffs, local magistrates and the like. We also relied upon word-of-mouth, discussing issues either openly or privately, in order to inform others and, yes, shame offenders.
The media has always played a role in bringing forward these stories, in order to warn and educate the populace. Now, maybe we aren’t used to them doing that anymore (for a variety of reasons), but trial by media is a) not a new thing and b) not necessarily a bad one.
The issue is societal norms; we do not celebrate victims of sexual predation and abuse coming forward. Instead, we typically re-victimise them. Institutions like the police and the courts tend to be (although not always) somewhat behind the times. Which makes sense; as society changes, those changes should – eventually – be reflected in the laws, rules, and regulations of the various institutions which purport to govern and protect us. What we are seeing – especially with regard to social media – are elements of our community going ‘This behaviour isn’t good enough, things are not changing fast enough, and so we are going to speak out’. Stories like this are evidence that societal norms are changing, and that if public institutions don’t start to reflect those changes by taking such charges seriously, then more and more of these stories will be prosecuted through the court of public opinion.
This story will prejudice the eventual trial!
Then there’s the other elephant in the room: ‘Stories like this prejudice the eventual trial.’ Yet we know cases like this are hardly ever reported, rarely investigated, and seldom successfully prosecuted through the courts (should it even get that far). The idea we should not discuss cases like this because it makes it hard on the perpetuators to get a fair trial is part-and-parcel of the reason why things like this happen. We don’t talk about it, which makes people think it doesn’t happen very often, which means people think claims like these are extraordinary (and thus search for other reasons why such a claim would have been made), et cetera.
Studies have been made about the effect of news reporting on trial outcomes, and it’s not at all clear that heavy media coverage of a story affects the outcome. We tend to read articles like this and assume ‘Now we know everything’, and that’s a feature of good journalism; a decent news story tells you the salient facts, and strings them together as a story. However, jurors get a lot more information inside the court room, and the idea that reading a news story will trump that onslaught of data is not an assumption we should hold tightly to. It’s true that a story might give someone the initial idea ‘That guy’s deffo guilty!’, but then again, societal attitudes towards cases like this will also prejudice people. ‘Well, they came on to him…’ ‘She was wearing that dress…’ These kinds of assumptions, which are often entirely unexamined, likely have an equal or greater effect that some news story someone may or may not have read.
Also, one story up on the Spinoff (no matter how highly you think of the story or the outlet), is hardly heavy coverage. The chances a random juror will have read it is relatively low. The chances most of the twelve have read it; pretty unlikely. Sorry, writers of the article!
But it’s just ‘she said; he said’…
Speech is evidence. Oh, it’s not ‘hard evidence’ like DNA or CCTV footage, but it’s still evidence. It still has to be weighed up and assessed like other kinds of evidence, and, strangely enough, it’s still the most common form of evidence around.
Why ‘strangely enough’? Well, because there’s a weird fetishisation with ‘hard evidence’, which stories like these apparently do not provide. ‘Oh, anyone can say that! Where’s the proof?’ is a common refrain, but that ignores the fact that speech is evidence. We rely on what we are told for an awful lot of the things we know. When were you born? What your name is. How many siblings (if any) you have. All of these are things you are told. A birth certificate can be easily faked, after all. Indeed, many people don’t even have copies of their birth certificates, and may never have even seen one.
Yet when it comes to allegations like that in the Spinoff article, people seem to suddenly want hard, physical evidence. On one hand this is understandable; we think of claims like that in the article as being ‘extraordinary’ or ‘very serious’, and so we want compelling evidence. But the nature of alleged activities like those in the Spinoff article don’t necessarily produce such hard evidence. Unless we go around recording everything we do, we’re reliant on cases where someone predates on another on the claims of the alleged victims and the responses to those claims by the accused. Reducing that down to ‘she said, but he said’ makes it seem like we’re dealing with a case which can only be settled with ‘evidence’, rather than admitting we’ve got a whole lot of evidence, and now the issue is how we weigh it.2 Weighing evidence is hard, whether or not it’s ‘hard’ evidence.
- Well, I guess that’s actually quite contentious. You could and probably should argue in response that we created certain statutes of criminal law, et cetera, precisely because existing societal norms did not deal with these issues adequately. But the general lesson remains.↩
- Part of the problem here is naive empiricism; the idea that evidence decides one way or the other, rather than supports certain hypotheses, given particular assumptions.↩