Before and without the police – On that Spinoff story

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.

Notes

  1. 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.
  2. 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.

4 thoughts on “Before and without the police – On that Spinoff story

  1. “But the nature of alleged activities like those in the Spinoff article don’t necessarily produce such hard evidence. ”

    Too bad, but that in no way justifies trial by media and the lynch mob mentality.

    This is hardly a problem restricted to sexual crimes, it is found in plenty of other areas of law – everyone has got a story of being screwed over and not able to resort to the law because of lack of hard evidence or because of the rigmarole of going to court. We even have a popular, long running program devoted just to this situation – “Fair Go”.

    You claim the spinoff move is just a sign of the times – that society is “progressing” and demanding more be done to address sexual abuse – that the courts need to catch up to this sea change in public sentiment.

    You are wrong Mr Dentith, what is happening is a highly politicised group ie Progressives/Feminists are pushing an ideological agenda onto the public with dodgy exaggerated stats about sexual abuse and bizzare Feminist claims about “Rape Culture”, “Patriarchy” and “Oppression”, with White Privilege and Evil Capitalism usually thrown in for good measure.

    This frothing toxic brew is creating a growing climate of hysteria where a right to a fair trial and presumption of innocence is replaced with a Witch Hunt and thirst for revenge.

    Unfortunately we do not have to look back far in NZ history to see this is just a repeat – in the 1980s and 90s we saw the same hysteria around Satanic sexual abuse and “recovered memory”. Again it was the Feminists, who referred to themselves as “Political Lesbians”, who instigated that witch hunt with the cooperation of the Religious Right. Many innocent individuals and their families were destroyed before the frenzy of false accusations and prosecutions burned out and became discredited.

    Unfortunately none of the perpetrators of that modern day witch hunt were ever made to answer for their evil actions and I believe many of them are probably part of this next wave of Feminist created rape hysteria.

    • So, your response to a worry about how we fetish a particular kind of evidence, and play down the most commonly-used kind of evidence, speech, is to suggest a large-scale conspiracy by progressives to… engage in witch hunts? I thought it was all about respecting women as persons, prosecuting sexual abusers, not further traumatising victims, and the like. I thought, as my post made clear, it was also about showing up inadequacies in the way we treat these crimes in our polity; most sexual assaults never get reported because victims think they won’t be believed. Why? Well, partly because of comments very much like your own. After all, your response to this post is ‘Them lying feminists, creating hysteria!’ Rather than examining whether the legal system adequately deals with sexual violence adequately (and numerous studies show it does not), you reach for the conspiracy card.

      How very sad.

      Also, if you are going to engage in arch-formalism, and refer to me by my last name, you could at least get my title right. It’s Dr., not Mr.

  2. I just noticed this blog from two months ago, and because I am revisiting the issue. It misrepresents the comment I made. Yes a story (two I think ) did appear in the Herald – reporting on the spinoff story. but it did not name the alleged offender and It did not state the allegations as fact. That was/is the issue.

    • Your construal of what you meant to say isn’t obvious from what you wrote back in April. The closest you get to it is:

      “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.”

      Now, apart from the fact you don’t make the strong point you claim should be taken from your opinion piece (‘The Herald might have mentioned the case, but at least we didn’t name the perpetrator!’), there’s also a curious worry about standards here. You claim:

      “[The Herald articles] did not name the alleged offender and It did not state the allegations as fact. That was/is the issue.”

      Those are two issues. You can report facts without naming people, after all, and you can name an individual and imply what they’ve done without reporting the facts of the matter. So, let’s deal with the issues on their own, rather than as a conjunction.

      Should the Spinoff have published Tidball’s name? Well, I’m not a journalist, so my view on this is not that of a professional, but given the plaudits the article received, and given that similar stories which name sexual predators in the past have also received plaudits, it’s obviously an open issue, probably one judged on a case-by-case basis. One moral case for the ‘name and shame!” argument is that a) it’s a warning to other potential victims to watch out for the offender, and b) given that such cases of offending are routinely ignored or downplayed by both the courts, and the police, culture change has to come from the Fourth Estate. As such, the Spinoff’s article falls under the rubric of activist journalism. Now, maybe you don’t like activist journalism, or you think journalistic reporting is somehow value neutral, but it’s not obvious it was an issue that the Spinoff article mentioned the name of the offender.

      Then there’s the playing of the ‘The public might treat these allegations seriously before they are examined by the relevant authorities’ card. That seems like a curious standard. Are you really committed to that idea? Certainly, journalists need to have evidence to support their stories, but the idea that it is a bad situation when people might treat that evidence seriously and form conclusions from it before the police give their opinion is, frankly, weird.

      Maybe you really meant to add the caveat that Tidball’s voice is missing from this story, and that people shouldn’t infer from the victim statements until Tidball has his day in court. That might be a plausible case to run if there was just one victim, but as the Spinoff article reports the statements of several victims, who tell stories of near identical predation by Tidball, the idea we need additional evidence here isn’t so pressing. We have a pattern of behaviour across multiple victims. That is evidence enough. Yes, you could add Tidball’s voice to the mix, but evidentially it isn’t necessary to prove the case, and you might also think that having Tidball offer excuses in the story might derail or devalue the witnesses’ statements.

      So, in short, I stand by my original point, as stated in the post. Indeed, I worry that your opinion piece, aside from blithely pushing the evidence to one side (“But ignoring for a minute the substantive issues”), pushes for faux outrage, merely on the basis that online media is engaging in what the older kids call “social media bullying”.

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